Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Attorneys delivering closing arguments in school finance lawsuit against state

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

Concerns about losing a generation of students and Gov. Sam Brownback's tax cuts were raised Wednesday before a three-judge panel considering whether the state is spending enough on public schools.

The wide-ranging views about school funding were voiced during three hours of closing arguments in a lawsuit brought by 54 school districts that alleges the state is violating the Kansas Constitution by not allocating enough funding to schools.

The judges are expected to issue a ruling within two or three months, and whatever decision they arrive at will likely be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, which means the Legislature may not have to deal with a final ruling until the 2014 legislative session.

"The costs have gone up, the demands have gone up and the funding has gone down. That is undisputed," said Alan Rupe, the lead attorney for the school districts.

But Arthur Chalmers, the lead attorney representing the state, argued that cuts to schools have been insignificant, and that legislators were forced to make tough budgetary decisions when state revenues were plummeting during the recession. He told the judges there were no "monsters" in the Legislature who wanted to ruin public education.

Chalmers said increased funding sought by the school districts would have a "disastrous effect" on the economy.

But Judge Robert Fleming asked Chalmers how could the panel ignore the recently enacted tax cuts while at the same time the Legislature failed to provide the amount of funding that studies have shown is needed for schools.

Chalmers said the judicial branch shouldn't get involved in the budget and tax decisions of the Legislature and governor. "That puts the court in the awkward position of acting like a super Legislature. I don't think the court wants to do that," he said.

During the last legislative session, Brownback, a Republican, and his GOP colleagues approved a tax law that will reduce individual income tax rates next year, merging the state's three tax brackets into two and dropping the top rate to 4.9 percent from 6.45 percent. The law also exempts the owners of 191,000 partnerships, sole proprietorships and other businesses from income taxes.

Brownback said the record tax cuts will stimulate the economy, but critics say the reduced tax revenue will force deep cuts in education, social services and public safety. State fiscal analysts say the cuts will lead to budget shortfalls of $2.5 billion by 2018.

Meanwhile, schools are being short-changed by $511 million per year, or 16 percent of total funding, because of recent state cuts, according to Rupe.

Those cuts "are affecting an entire generation of kids," Rupe said. Of the impending tax cuts, Rupe said, the state is taking money from students "to appease somebody else."

He said he was incredulous that Chalmers would call the recent budget cuts insignificant. "That insignificant amount of money has caused massive cuts in programs," Rupe said.

Judge Franklin Theis, the presiding judge of the panel, pressed Chalmers on how legislators arrived at their decisions on school funding and whether they considered the actual costs necessary to educate students.

Chalmers said it was a judgment call and that legislators had to balance many factors.

Under a previous state Supreme Court ruling, the Legislature approved a law that was supposed to increase base state aid per student to $4,492 in 2010. But funding cuts from 2009 to 2011 brought base state aid to its lowest level in years at $3,780 per student.

In testimony in June during a trial in the case, school officials said the cuts were preventing them from closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities.

But Chalmers argued that Kansans should be proud of the public education system. He said the state's students rank high in national tests. "We have a constitutional system that provides the opportunity for a suitable education," he said.

And, he said, the Legislature still spends more than half of the state budget on public schools.