TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Supreme Court threatened Thursday to shut down schools if lawmakers don't revamp the way the state funds public schools by July, ruling that a law enacted last year as a temporary fix underfunded poor school districts by at least $54 million.
The high court unanimously decided that the Republican-backed law violates the Kansas Constitution's requirement that the state finance a suitable education for every student. The court gave lawmakers just four months to devise another system for distributing more than $4 billion in state funding to 286 public schools.
Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick said the court was holding taxpayers and schoolchildren hostage. A fellow Republican, Sen. Jeff Melcher, called the decision a "temper tantrum."
"It's kind of one of those things, 'Give us the money, or the kid gets it,'" Melcher said.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback called it a ruling from an "activist" court but added, "We will review this decision closely and work with the Legislature to ensure the continued success of our great Kansas schools."
The decision stems from a lawsuit that four school districts have been pursuing since 2010. The districts say the state's funding method hurts poor schools and disadvantaged and minority students the most.
In response to the lawsuit, legislators approved a $140 million increase in education funding in 2014. But the estimated cost of that aid for the 2014-15 school year skyrocketed by $54 million under the state's per-student formula for distributing funding.
Legislators approved the 2015 law as a temporary fix to replace that formula with "block grants," which largely freeze education funds outside of contributions to teacher pensions. But lawmakers refused to pay districts the extra $54 million, after schools built their budgets expecting the money. In response, districts statewide cut programs, shed jobs and ended the 2014-15 school year early.
The court said denying the funds made the school funding law unfair to poor school districts.
"Without a constitutionally equitable school finance system, the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate beyond June 30," the court said in its unsigned ruling.
The high court suggested that lawmakers could revise the grant system to restore the aid poor districts were shorted.
"The court has given the Legislature a second chance to fix the thing," said John Robb, an attorney representing the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City school districts, which sued the state.
However, the ruling doesn't specify how much additional money would be required. Dale Dennis, deputy state education commissioner, said the combined estimated shortfall for the current school year and the 2016-2017 academic year is almost $110 million. He said officials disagree over whether the court would demand that districts also receive the funds they were shorted for 2014-15, which would bring the total to $164 million.
Brownback and the GOP-dominated Legislature already were facing a projected state-budget deficit of nearly $200 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The court ruling came as lawmakers debated budget-balancing plans.
The state has struggled to balance its budget since legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013, at Brownback's urging in an effort to stimulate the economy. Democratic leaders said one of the results has been inadequate spending on schools.
GOP lawmakers didn't immediately commit to boosting spending or writing a new school funding law.
"We just wait to see what the next ploy will be to defy what the Supreme Court says," said Dean Katt, superintendent of the Hays school district in northwest Kansas.
The state's total aid continues to set annual records. Brownback and many GOP legislators believe they've been generous.
Many educators contend the 2015 block-grant law was unfair because it didn't automatically increase a school district's aid if it had more students or if a greater percentage of students had special needs.
David Smith, a spokesman for Kansas City's school district, said the court decision was "something fundamental for education."
"I think kids everywhere should be celebrating," he said.
Associated Press writers Melissa Hellmann in Topeka and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri, contributed to this report.
Text of Kansas Supreme Court's ruling: http://bit.ly/1QaA6Xd
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
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