Superintendent tells court Kansas school funding law harmful

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The public school superintendent in Kansas City, Kansas, testified in court Thursday that the state's new school funding law is hurting her district's efforts to educate its students.

Superintendent Cynthia Lane was a witness in a Shawnee County District Court hearing because her district and the Dodge City, Hutchinson and Wichita districts are asking a three-judge panel to block the new law, which took effect in April. The districts contend the state isn't meeting its duty under its constitution to provide a suitable education to every child.

The districts argue that the law distributes state funds unfairly. Legislators also cut the aid districts expected to receive during the current school year by nearly $54 million to help balance the state budget.

"We know what to do," Lane said. "We don't have the resources."

But Arthur Chalmers, a Wichita attorney representing the state, attempted in questioning Lane to show that her district and others are still faring far better now than they did during the 2013-14 school year, despite the cuts this year.

"You have more — much more money this year, substantially more money this year," Chalmers said.

The state called Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis as a witness, and his testimony dealt with the technical details of the new school funding law. The court hearing is scheduled to continue Friday.

The new law promises that total state aid for public schools will rise again during each of the next two school years, though the increases primarily would cover higher teacher pension costs.

The same-three judge panel decreed in December that the state must boost its annual spending on public schools by at least $548 million, far more than the new law promises. The state is appealing that decision to the Kansas Supreme Court, but the high court won't take up the case until the lower-court panel finishes ruling on the new law.

The four districts sued the state in 2010. The Supreme Court last year directed legislators to boost aid to poor school districts such as Kansas City, Kansas, and lawmakers complied. But the high court sent the case back to the lower court panel for further review.

The new school funding law took effect in April and scrapped the state's old per-student formula for distributing more than $4 billion to its 286 school districts. The old formula provided extra dollars, among other things, for each child learning English as a second language or at risk of dropping out.

The new law gives districts "block grants" based on their current aid through the 2016-17 school year, to give legislators time to write a new formula. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP legislators who support the law argue it provides stability.

But Lane said her district will fall behind in funding programs and maintaining buildings. She said the new law — unlike the old formula — doesn't automatically boost a district's aid if, like hers, its enrollment rises or more students need extra services.

She said the district is holding up to 30 support staff jobs open and curtailing hours for as many as 80 more. She said it's putting off repairs and renovations, even though it has had to hold classes in hallways and convert boiler rooms in some elementary schools.

Figures from the state Department of Education show that the new school funding law trimmed $1.9 million from the aid the Kansas City, Kansas district had expected to receive this year, or about 1.1 percent.

The lowered figure is still almost $12.8 million more than the district's aid in 2013-14, but Lane noted that some of the extra aid was designed to lower local property taxes. The Kansas City district's property tax levies were 18 percent lower in the current school year than in 2013-14.


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