Thursday, October 31, 2013

Second school finance case winding through federal courts

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

KANSAS CITY, KAN. ----- While the Kansas Supreme Court is considering one lawsuit challenging the state's school finance system, a second lawsuit is still making its way through federal court.

U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum ruled this week that the case of Petrella vs. Brownback may proceed in order to decide one narrow question about the finance system.

That case was filed in 2010, around the same time as the state court case Gannon vs. Kansas, by families in the Shawnee Mission school district in Johnson County.

The case has been called a “surgical strike” on just one aspect of the school funding formula, the statutory cap on how much money school districts can raise on their own through local taxes to fund their “local option budgets.” The plaintiffs have said they are not challenging the entire school finance formula as inadequate.

Because of the cap, the plaintiffs argue, Shawnee Mission and other wealthier school districts actually have less to spend per pupil than many other districts, especially poorer districts that get more state aid for their “at-risk” students. That gap in funding, the lawsuit alleges, violates the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment guarantees of equal protection and due process.

In March 2011, Lungstrum dismissed the case, saying that even if the plaintiffs were right, the court had no authority to lift the cap. It could only strike down the entire school funding formula, and that would leave the plaintiffs with no authority to raise any taxes at all.

But the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in October 2012 and sent the case back to Lungstrum. The three-judge panel said that if the plaintiffs prove their case, the court could provide relief by, for example, striking down the entire funding scheme.

Since then, the plaintiffs filed several motions for “summary judgment,” asking Lungstrum to decide the case in their favor, without a trial, based on the uncontested facts in the case. The state, meanwhile, filed several motions to dismiss the case again, arguing there is no basis for claiming the local-option budget cap violates the Constitution.

The state also asked to delay the case until after the Kansas Supreme Court rules in the Gannon lawsuit.

On Wednesday, Lungstrum issued an order denying all but one of those motions, allowing the case to move forward on the question of equal protection – the claim that Shawnee Mission students are required to get by with less money per pupil solely because of the relative wealth of the district.

Lungstrum has not yet set a date for the next hearing.