Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dinner turns up the heat with burning issue: Education funding

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 12/4/2013

“Come let us reason together.”

State Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, quoted that passage from the Bible to illustrate his desire to see the judicial and legislative branches work together to find common ground on the state’s embattled school finance formula.

“Come let us reason together.”

State Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, quoted that passage from the Bible to illustrate his desire to see the judicial and legislative branches work together to find common ground on the state’s embattled school finance formula.

The representative from the 59th district, which includes Ottawa, was addressing about 40 locally elected officials during the 2013 Legislative Dinner Tuesday at Neosho County Community College, 900 E. Logan St., Ottawa. The annual event is sponsored by the City of Ottawa, Franklin County and the Ottawa school district. Sara Caylor, Ottawa mayor, served as emcee of the event.

The state’s school finance formula has come under legal challenge for the second time in the past decade, with the Wichita school district serving as plaintiff in the current lawsuit, Gannon v. State of Kansas, which is now before the Kansas Supreme Court. Wichita, and 53 other school districts that joined the suit, claim current levels of school funding violate the state Constitution and deprive students of a suitable education.

Some legislative observers think the Supreme Court will hand down its decision during the coming 2014 legislative session, which begins Jan. 13.

“We in the [education] field believe the court is going to hand out a decision that says the state is not adequately funding education,” Dotson Bradbury, West Franklin school superintendent, told state Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, state Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, and Finch. “We are also very aware of the fact that unless there is a tax increase, there currently isn’t enough revenue to fund what we believe may be ultimately decided by the court.”

If the court does rule the state is not adequately funding education, Bradbury asked the lawmakers to weigh in on the possibility of that decision creating a Constitutional crisis in the state that could prevent public schools from opening next August.

“We actually have an interesting scenario at the federal level with Obamacare, in which the [U.S.] Supreme Court ruled [the Affordable Health Care Act] was germane and ruled it was a tax bill,” Tyson, senator for the 12th District, which includes Ottawa, said. “Our U.S. Constitution says that a tax bill has to originate in the U.S. Senate [which Obamacare did not]. So we have a Constitutional crisis going on right now, but you don’t see anything shut down. It’s working its way through the courts again.”

In applying what’s happening at the federal level to the state challenge, Tyson said, she doesn’t think schools will be shut down.

It is difficult to predict what the court’s ruling will be, Tyson and Jones said.

“I don’t think any of us know what’s going to happen [with the ruling],” Jones, 5th District representative and Wellsville school board member, said. “But I don’t think schools are going to be shut down.”

The timing of the ruling could set the tone from the coming legislative session, Finch said.

“There’s no timeline for when the Gannon decision may come down,” Finch said. “If it comes down in January, and the Legislature has a whole session to stew [about] the Gannon decision and come up with ideas, that could make it a very long session.

“If it doesn’t come out until sometime after we’ve adjourned and there’s some time for us to regroup and deal with it in the 2015 session, that may be a different thing entirely,” he said.

Finch said he thought it would be public education’s turn in the hot seat in the 2014 session. He told Bradbury the scenario the superintendent was describing outlines what happened with Montoy v. State of Kansas in 2005, in which a number of school districts banded together in filing a lawsuit to challenge the school finance formula.

“A special session was called and the Legislature had to come back to Topeka and decided to allocate more money in what eventually amounted to a settlement with the court,” Finch said.

The idea behind the settlement, he said, was that the state would dedicate more funding for public education if the court would not mandate that the state treasurer withhold funds from public education come August when the school doors are supposed to open.

“That was the deal,” Finch said. “Some of the plaintiffs in the Gannon case are saying ‘Hey, the state Legislature welched on that deal. Money going into K-12 should be X, and it’s not X, and that’s where we are at now.”

If the Supreme Court mandates that the state treasurer not release funds, that could create a situation in which schools are not going to open in August, Finch said. Like his colleagues, Finch said he did not have a crystal ball to tell him which way the court would rule.

“The Supreme Court of the State of Kansas has the inherent authority to interpret the Kansas Constitution and determine whether or not something is constitutional,” Finch said. “That is their job. That is not interference in the legislative prerogative. The problem we’ve got is that our Kansas Constitution says you have to make suitable provisions for the finance of public education. If you’ve got that in there, they’ve got no choice but to interpret that. So we either need to take that language out and change that, and preferably not in the heat of battle between one branch of government and another, but in a more reasoned and less heated time, or you’ve got to live with the fact that the Constitution says what it says and it’s their job to interpret it.”

Finch said he hopes the state’s High Court approaches its decision with a modicum of discretion and judiciousness, so a battle isn’t waged between the judicial and legislative branches of government, and the state can keep its public schools open.

“As it says in the Book of Isaiah, ‘Come let us reason together,’ and see if we can’t find a solution that will actually do more for the common good and for public education than to go at each other and be at loggerheads, which would only hurt the students of this state.”

David White, president of the Ottawa school board, asked lawmakers for their take on maintaining state aid equalization for local property taxes.

Tyson said that topic is always going to be a battle because 50 percent of the state’s 40 senators live in the five largest counties and more than 50 percent of the 125 House members reside in the five most populated counties — with 25 in Johnson County alone. Finch agreed, saying the population trends weren’t likely to reverse, and legislators in the large urban areas chafe at the idea of state aid equalization for rural portions of the state.

The Ottawa school district’s list of 2014 legislative priorities — which range from state funding for all-day kindergarten to opposing shifting any more of the tax burden to local school district taxpayers — are all tied to funding, White said.

“As far as USD 290, if you look at our list, to make it short and simple, we want money,” White said, to laughter from the audience. “We are really asking for the Legislature to give school districts in the county and across the state stability in school funding, that we have a multi-year plan in place so that schools can think about what’s going to happen ... give us the flexibility, through stability and planning, to make clear decisions that benefit our kids in the most impactful way possible.”

For more coverage from the legislative dinner, including discussions about tax bills, corporate farming and other issues, see the second part of this report in The Herald’s Weekender edition.

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