Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Governor opens dialogue aimed at avoiding future school finance lawsuits

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback met for nearly an hour Monday with education officials and legislative leaders, hoping to find a way to avoid future lawsuits over the funding of Kansas public schools.

The meeting included three district superintendents, the president of the Kansas Association of School Boards, as well as leaders of the Kansas House and Senate.

"We've got excellent K-12 schools in the state of Kansas, and we've had 40 years of litigation over how we fund it," Brownback said after the meeting. "So what we're trying to do is see how we can continue to have excellent K-12 schools, have them financed and not have the courts shut them down."

The meeting came while the Kansas Supreme Court is weighing arguments in a lawsuit that could force the Legislature to approve more than $500 million a year in increased spending for public schools.

Critics of Brownback's administration noted before it took place that only Republican leaders of the Legislature had been invited, and not one of the superintendents was from a district involved in the pending lawsuit.

A ruling in that case is expected around the first of the year. And if the court sides with the plaintiffs in that case, statehouse observers say it will dominate next year's budget discussions and could threaten the future of Brownback's signature policy of massive income tax cuts.

But some of the school officials who attended the meeting said there is no secret about how to avoid future litigation.

"Fund the formula," said Mike Mathes, superintendent of the Seaman school district in Topeka.

Frank Henderson, a member of the Seaman school board who is serving as this year's president of KASB, echoed that sentiment.

"I don't think there's a problem with the formula," he said. "Of course it hasn't been funded. If it was funded, we might be better able to see what the needs are."

Since 2009, base funding for public schools has been cut nearly 13 percent, to $3,838 per pupil, the lowest amount in more than a decade.

Brownback, however, insists that "total" spending on public schools has gone up each year of his administration, although that is mainly, if not entirely, due to mandatory increases in retirement system contributions.

"I think that most people believe you should fund your pensions," Brownback said in a meeting with reporters after the meeting. "Most teachers get pensions and want to see their pensions funded, and you have a limited amount of total state dollars."

During his first year in office in 2011, Brownback spent considerable energy trying to devise a new funding formula for public schools to replace the one that has been in place, with some modifications, since 1992. That plan, however, never advanced to the floor of either chamber of the Legislature.

It was not clear after Monday's meeting whether Brownback still hopes to overhaul the formula, or if he is seeking some other accommodation with the education community.

"The goal for this meeting was just to have a dialogue between key players," said State Board of Education member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican.

Brownback said he planned to continue the dialog.

"This is an initial discussion, first meeting," he said. "We'll have (followup) meetings to discuss what we can do to move the discussion on forward in a positive and robust manner."