Governor signs bill aimed at keeping Kansas schools open

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Posted: Jun 27, 2016 6:34 PM
Governor signs bill aimed at keeping Kansas schools open

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation Monday to increase aid to poor school districts, an action that meets a court mandate and ends a threat that the state's public schools might shut down.

The bill, which takes effect Friday, increases poor districts' state funding $38 million for 2016-17 by diverting funds from other parts of the state budget. It also redistributes some funds from wealthier districts in line with a state Supreme Court ruling last month.

The court said the state's school funding system remains unfair to poor districts, despite three rounds of changes in the past three years. Lawmakers had until Thursday to make further changes, and the court had said that schools might not reopen if no action was taken.

The measure had broad, bipartisan support when the Republican-dominated Legislature passed it last week during a two-day special session. Both legislative staffers and the Republican governor moved with unusual speed because of the deadline; some bills aren't signed until 20 days after their final passage.

"It keeps the schools open," Brownback said after signing the measure. "Now we can move on forward on other issues that the state faces."

Despite the measure, Kansas faces more legal and political battles over education funding. The Supreme Court could rule early next year on a lower-court panel's decision on whether the state must increase its annual spending on schools by at least $548 million. And Republican leaders have committed the Legislature to writing a new finance formula next year.

The court's ruling last month came in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita, and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts. Within a half-hour of the signing, their attorneys and the state's lawyers filed a joint statement with the state Supreme Court telling it that the legislation satisfies the court's demands for fairly distributed education funds.

"We've got this chapter behind us," said John Robb, an attorney representing the four districts suing the state. But he called the issue of whether the state spends enough money on its schools overall "the main course" of the lawsuit.

The bill increases aid by less than 1 percent of the more than $4 billion a year the state already spends. But the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the Kansas Constitution requires legislators to finance a suitable education for all children, whether they live in rich or poor areas.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging in an effort to stimulate the economy.

Those ongoing budget problems prompted lawmakers to boost aid to poor districts without increasing overall state spending, tapping sources such as motor vehicle fees and funds from a national legal settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s.

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