Kansas lawmakers mulling courts' power amid funding fight

AP News
|
Posted: Jun 17, 2016 5:19 PM
Kansas lawmakers mulling courts' power amid funding fight

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Legislature's attempt to build bipartisan support for a court-mandated increase in state aid to poor school districts stalled Friday as lawmakers from affluent Kansas City suburbs demanded assurances that their schools won't lose money.

A joint meeting of the state House and Senate judiciary committees previewed a potentially intense sectional fight over education funding during a special legislative session that begins next week. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback summoned the GOP-dominated Legislature back to the Statehouse to address a state Supreme Court order last month.

The high court said the state's education funding system remains unfair to poor school districts. It warned that schools might not be able to reopen after June 30 if legislators don't make changes by then.

Brownback is pushing a plan to increase the state's aid to its 286 local school districts — already more than $4 billion a year — by another $38 million for 2016-17. The extra dollars would help poor districts, but some funds still would be redistributed from dozens of wealthier districts, particularly in Johnson County in the Kansas City area.

School superintendents and chambers of commerce in there are pushing for a $50 million increase, so that no school district loses any aid. But Brownback and many lawmakers question whether the Supreme Court would accept such a plan as still unfair to poor districts.

Neither committee would make specific recommendations ahead of the special session, despite 10 hours of briefings, hearings and discussions Thursday and Friday.

"We don't have a consensus," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican.

Many GOP legislators remain upset with the Supreme Court's decision, arguing that the justices exceeded their authority, particularly with the threat that schools would remain closed. The Senate committee agreed to pursue an amendment to the state constitution to prevent schools from being shut down in the future because of education funding lawsuits.

The state has been and out of legal battles over education funding for nearly three decades. The latest round began with a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts.

A consensus had appeared to be building toward the $38 million plan favored by Brownback. Top Democrats endorsed it and outlined proposals Friday for diverting funds from other parts of the budget. King, who'd been skeptical of the need to increase spending, also outlined a plan Friday to divert highway dollars to schools.

But Johnson County officials' misgivings can't be ignored politically. The county is the state's most populous, home to 20 percent of Kansas' population and a GOP stronghold. Repeatedly, its lawmakers said they want to prevent districts from losing state aid.

"I don't know that I could support something that doesn't have a 'hold harmless' provision," said Sen. Julia Lynn, a Republican from Olathe, where the local district stands to lose about $898,000.

___

Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .