Attorney: Kansas need not have best school funding system

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas is not required by its constitution to have a perfect education funding system or the nation's best, an attorney for the state told a district court panel Friday as it considered whether to block the state's new school finance law.

Attorney Arthur Chalmers made the comment near the end of a two-day Shawnee County District Court hearing in a lawsuit from the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts. They want the three presiding judges to invalidate the law and force the state to return to its old, per-student formula for distributing more than $4 billion to its 286 school districts.

Much of the hearing centered on legislators' decision this year to help balance the state budget by trimming $54 million from the aid districts expected to receive during the current school year. The Hutchinson and Kansas City, Kansas, superintendents testified that the cut hurt their districts.

But Chalmers repeatedly pointed out that even the lowered amount is significantly more than state aid for the 2013-14 school year.

"It is not the obligation of the state to come up with the best or a perfect system," Chalmers said. "Our obligation is to be constitutional."

The four aggrieved school districts contend the state doesn't spend enough money on its schools to fulfill its duty under the Kansas Constitution to provide a suitable education to every child. They also argue that the money isn't distributed in ways that do enough to help poorer districts provide as good of an education as wealthier ones.

The lawsuit was filed in 2010, and last year the Kansas Supreme Court ordered legislators to boost aid to poor districts. Lawmakers complied but learned months afterward that their promises would be far more expensive than anticipated. They backtracked this year in writing the new school funding law, which took effect in April.

After ruling last year, the Supreme Court sent the lawsuit back to the lower-court panel to monitor the state's compliance and to review other legal issues.

Chalmers contends lawmakers kept their promises — and are still complying with the Supreme Court order — because this school year's reduced aid is in line with what lawmakers originally thought they were spending.

But Alan Rupe, an attorney for the four districts, said legislators broke their promises and they're not complying with the Supreme Court order because they didn't fully fund the measures they approved last year.

The new law enacted this year scrapped the state's per-student funding formula in favor of predictable "block grants." While supporters see it as promoting stability, Rupe and other critics note that the new law — unlike the old formula — will not automatically adjust a district's aid if its student numbers grow or if more of them are drop-out risks or learning English.

"It ain't fair," he told the judges.

Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis testified that no district received more aid for the current school year under the new law than it did under the old formula. He also said legislators specifically reduced aid to poor districts — without affecting wealthier ones.

The Hutchinson district lost $313,000. Chalmers noted in questioning Superintendent Shelly Kiblinger that the district is keeping more than $1.8 million in reserves to cover contingencies, suggesting district could budget some of it to cover operating costs.

Kiblinger said the funds are for emergencies, adding, "If you could budget for it, it wouldn't be a contingency."


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