Kansas governor backs $38M schools fix for special session

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican Gov. Sam Brownback on Wednesday embraced a $38 million increase in state aid for poor Kansas school districts as he called a special session aimed at averting a court-mandated shutdown of public schools statewide.

Brownback issued a proclamation summoning the GOP-dominated Legislature back to the Statehouse on June 23. He wants lawmakers to respond to a state Supreme Court ruling last month declaring that the state’s system for distributing more than $4 billion a year in aid to its 286 school districts remains unfair to poor ones.

The court warned the state won’t have a system that complies with its constitution — and schools “will be unable to open” — after June 30 if lawmakers don’t rewrite school finance laws. State officials believe the $38 million increase in aid would be in line with the court’s decision, and it would redistribute dollars from wealthier districts.

Brownback said he’s willing to consider a variety of ways to raise the $38 million, including shifting it from other pots of aid to schools or cutting other areas of the state’s already-stressed budget. He also said he’d consider changes in education policy that Republicans might want in exchange for voting for the aid increase.

“We must remain focused on what is in the best interest of our students,” Brownback said. “My goal for the special session is to keep the schools open.”

John Robb, an attorney representing four school districts that have sued the state, said in an email that he was encouraged that Brownback is talking about “a legitimate fix.”

But he said he’s “disturbed” by talk of discussing additional policy issues. One possibility is submitting a proposed constitutional amendment to voters in November to declare that the courts can’t close public schools.

Robb said lawmakers should concentrate on making education funding fairer to poor districts.

“Just fix it and go home,” he said.

The state Supreme Court has ruled several times in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts. In February, the justices said poor districts weren’t getting their fair share of the state’s aid, and lawmakers responded by rewriting school finance laws.

Afterward, most districts didn’t see a change in their aid, and the state’s overall spending didn’t increase. The court rejected some of the changes, saying legislators still weren’t complying with their duty under the state constitution to fund schools so that all children receive a suitable education, whether they live in rich areas or poor ones.

The court issued its latest ruling May 27, several weeks after lawmakers finished most of their work for the year. Legislators reconvened June 1 for a ceremony adjourning their annual session, but Republicans were divided over how to respond to the court.

Some GOP lawmakers wanted to defy the court, despite the threat that schools might not reopen. Brownback and Republican legislative leaders continue to strongly criticize the latest decision — even as they move toward complying.

“Despite the court’s attempts to stir up fear and close Kansas schools, it’s not going to happen,” House Speaker Ray Merrick said in a statement.

Legislators faced a budget crunch this year as part of the state’s ongoing financial struggles after GOP lawmakers slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging to help stimulate the economy.

They also felt political pressure not to help poor districts by cutting aid to their wealthier cousins, particularly in Johnson County in the Kansas City area. A GOP stronghold, it is the state’s most populous county. Merrick is from there.

But State Department of Education data show that the fix embraced by Brownback would reduce aid to 96 local districts. And the three biggest districts in Johnson County would lose nearly $4.8 million a year.

Ensuring that no district lost aid would cost an additional $12 million a year. But Brownback questioned Wednesday whether the Supreme Court would see that as a move away from fairness.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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