May 27, 2016 Kansas Supreme Court strikes down school finance law; special legislative session possible
The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday ruled the state's so-called equity fix in regards to Local Option Budget aid in the school finance lawsuit is unconstitutional and again gave the Legislature until June 30 to remedy funding for poor districts or the school system would be unable to operate.
The decision raises the possibility of a special legislative session or an extension of the 2016 session, which is scheduled to end Wednesday.
In reaction to the Court decision, each side in the long-running dispute pointed fingers at each other.
Gov. Sam Brownback and House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, sharply criticized the court as over-reaching, while Alan Rupe, lead attorney for the plaintiff school districts, said if schools close it would be the fault of the Legislature for failing to perform its constitutional duty.
Shutting schools this summer would disrupt numerous school programs and possibly delay or drastically alter the start of the upcoming school year.
In February, the Kansas Supreme Court said the school finance law was unconstitutional because it created inequities in funding and tax burden that harmed low wealth districts and their students. In March, the Legislature approved House Bill 2655, which supporters said cured those inequities, while the school districts suing the state said the amount of funding fell short and the law allowed continued unequal tax treatment.
On Friday, the Court said HB 2655 does cure the capital outlay inequities but failed to fix the unconstitutional inequities in the Local Option Budget and supplemental general state aid.
The Court said the Legislature's decision to provide a lower rate of LOB funding "increases and exacerbates the disparity among districts." A hold harmless provision and extraordinary need fund somewhat mitigates the inequity, but the provision also will likely result in wealthier districts raising additional revenue that poor districts can't, the Court said.
The Court has ruled the Kansas Constitution requires that school districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.
In its decision, the Court said without a constitutionally equitable school finance system, the schools in Kansas cannot operate.
The Court stated " … the inability of Kansas schools to operate would not be because this court would have ordered them closed. Rather, it would be because this court would have performed its sworn duty to the people of Kansas under their constitution to review the legislature's enactments and to ensure the legislature's compliance with its own duty," under the Kansas Constitution.
Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes opens in Fort Scott, Kan.
Interactive museum shares stories unearthed by students
By Ann Marie Bush Kansas State Department of Education FORT SCOTT, KAN. — Tucked away in the downtown area of this small southeast community, one can find the true definition of an unsung hero.
Merriam-Webster defines unsung as “not given attention and praise that is deserved for doing good things.” However, the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes in Fort Scott shines the spotlight on several unsung heroes.
There is Therese Frare, who as a young photojournalist took an iconic photograph of a dying man with AIDS. The photograph helped change the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990s.
Unsung Hero Irena Sendler was a young Catholic social worker who led a network of volunteers to rescue more than 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
Then there is Lt. Col. Tran Ngoc “Harry” Hue, who served with the 1st Infantry Division Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He fought alongside American soldiers during Vietnam, saving numerous South Vietnamese and American lives. In 1971, Hue was taken prisoner by enemy forces while searching for supplies. He was tortured for 13 years, but refused to give in even after being forced to live in horrific conditions.
Many of these stories have been researched and told by students across the nation. For example, Hue’s story was told by two Seaman Unified School District 345 students — Hailey Reed and Andrea Sodergren. The two students, along with their teacher, Susan Sittenauer, joined Hue and several of his family members for the grand opening of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes on May 24.
Frare and another Unsung Hero, Kendall Reinhardt, also attended the event. As a young white student, Reinhardt befriended nine black teenagers who later became known as the Little Rock Nine.
Lowell Milken, co-founder and chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, was on hand for the event, too. Other special guests included Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson, Deputy Commissioners Dale Dennis and Brad Neuenswander and Heather Smith, director of economic development for Fort Scott.
“There is a great feeling of honor to have completed the Hall of Unsung Heroes,” Milken said while dozens of people toured the center.
The 6,000-square-foot interactive museum, which sits on the corner of Wall and Main Streets, is dedicated to people who have taken extraordinary actions to help others but who have been ignored by history until now. It features interactive exhibits, a 48-seat theater with bench seating, a conference room, life-sized apple tree symbolizing where Sendler buried jars containing the names of children who had been smuggled out of Poland and award-winning student art.
The unsung heroes have been discovered by students and teachers through LMC’s project-based learning approach. New projects and exhibits are continually in development, and executive director Norm Conard said some of the exhibits will change out every few months.
“This is a testimony to great teachers, great students and American education,” Conard said. “So much is right with education in America.”
LMC was launched in 2007. However, the idea for it came about in 1992 when Milken honored high school teacher Conard with a Milken Educator Award at Uniontown High School in Kansas. During his teaching career, Conard, who transitioned from the classroom to executive director, has engaged thousands of students in history projects that incorporate performing arts, multimedia and video production.
One of those outstanding students was Megan Felt. Felt in 1999 was a freshman in Conard’s history class. Felt, Conard and other students unearthed the story of Sendler. The students wrote a play about her, which they entitled, “Life in a Jar.” The play has been performed more than 350 times throughout the United States and Europe. The students and Conard found out Sendler was still living in Poland and went to visit her. Sendler was nominated in 2007 for the Nobel Peace Prize, one year before her death. The play was the premise for a book and movie about Sendler.
Milken offered support for the “Life in a Jar” project, and he and Conard began talking about how they could further promote educational projects that shed light on unsung heroes. That led to the creation of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes nonprofit initiative in April 2007.
The center has been operated in a smaller exhibit space in downtown Fort Scott. The center has welcomed 40,000 visitors from 80 countries since its inception in 2007. The popularity spurred the creation of the new facility. The former space will be used to train educators and students to do research and project-based learning on unsung heroes.
The center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment on Saturday.
The LMC Fellowship Project, another aspect of the nonprofit initiative, unites top educators and offers them educational resources and ongoing support to enhance their classrooms. The program has grown from two LMC Fellows in 2008 to 71 in 2015.
Nate McAlister, a 2015 Fellow who teaches at Royal Valley Middle School, was one of the visitors to the center May 24.
“It’s history on display, and it’s telling the story of those who have been forgotten by history,” McAlister said. “The students are the heroes, too. They are the ones telling these stories that need to be told.”
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANN MARIE BUSH/KSDE
Lt. Col. Tran Ngoc Hue is one of the Unsung Heroes featured in the center. Two Seaman High School students told Hue's story for the National History Day contest and won.
Left to right, Heather Smith, director of economic development for the city of Fort Scott, Dr. Randy Watson, Kansas commissioner of education, and Lowell Milken, co-founder and chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, listen to comments during the ceremony.
Inside the center, several displays are available for viewing.
Brownback spares K-12 but cuts occurring as costs increase
Gov. Sam Brownback spared K-12 from budget cuts but school cuts are occurring because the state budget locks in a third year of essentially flat school spending amid rising costs and expectations.
And Brownback said if the Kansas Supreme Court orders more funding for an equity fix to the school finance system that could force him to make more cuts to higher education and health care for the poor, which he slashed along with other areas in the amount of $97 million.
The actions announced Wednesday came as Brownback signed into law the state budget and made cuts, most notably to Medicaid and universities, to shore up the budget’s bottom line.
KASB said it appreciated the Legislature and Brownback not cutting K-12 funding, but noted the budget basically puts in place a freeze on the level of funding for the third straight year under the block grant finance system and increased costs causing school districts across the state to cutback on important services and programs.
On Wednesday, the state’s largest school district, Wichita USD 259, approved $18 million in budget cuts, which included the elimination of more than 100 positions, closing an alternative high school, and ending bus transportation for thousands of students. And more cuts are on the way, officials said.
Wichita school board vice president Mike Rodee blamed Brownback and legislative leaders for the school cuts. “All of these budget cuts are tough. There’s nobody up here that likes it. But we need to look at the people that are doing it to us,” Rodee was quoted in Thursday’s Wichita Eagle. “Our legislators, our government, our governor — we are the ones who are fighting to keep the schools alive and they are fighting to close them,” he said.
But Brownback’s office said the budget shielded K-12 funding during tough economic times.
“Our economy continues to face challenges with declines in oil and gas production, agriculture and aviation, our three major industries. This budget recognizes those challenges while protecting K-12 education and public safety,” the office said.
When legislators approved the budget sent to Brownback they assumed he would have to make some cuts so they also passed a proviso to protect K-12 from those cuts. Brownback could have vetoed that proviso but didn’t.
By Kansas Center for Economic Growth Senior Fellow Duane Goossen
Expect financial turmoil in Kansas to continue. Lawmakers left Topeka after approving revisions to the budgets already in place for FY 2016 and FY 2017, but failed to solve the underlying problem facing the state. As a result of unaffordable tax cuts, Kansas does not receive enough revenue to pay the bills.
Here's the high-level general fund profile for FY 2016 based on legislative action:
Now let's go one step further and break out the one-time transfers from total revenue:
The FY 2016 budget that lawmakers passed has a large structural imbalance, and would leave the general fund $140 million below zero at the end of the fiscal year. To avoid the negative ending balance, lawmakers are expecting the governor to use his powers to transfer yet another $70 million from the highway fund. That would technically increase general fund revenue, but it's more one-time money that does not narrow the structural imbalance. Lawmakers also expect the governor to "delay" a $96 million payment to the retirement system until FY 2018, which would lower total expenditures in FY 2016 but increase expenditures in FY 2018.
Now, look at FY 2017 based on the recent legislative budget action:
Again, let's go one step further and break out the revenue projection to show one-time transfers:
The FY 2017 budget also has a large structural imbalance and a negative ending balance. Lawmakers are expecting the governor to order an additional transfer of $115 million from the highway fund, and to also cut expenditures (details of the cuts unknown) enough to avoid the negative ending balance.
Now consider FY 2018. When lawmakers convene a new legislative session in January, they must create a brand-new budget for FY 2018. How will that work?
Recurring revenue in FY 2017 totals $5.9 billion. With luck, that might grow a little in FY 2018, but under current policy, hoping for much more than $6.0 billion would be quite optimistic. Legislators set expenses for FY 2017 at $6.324 billion, but in FY 2018 expenses will be higher. The 4th quarter KPERS payment from FY 2016 must be paid. Add $96 million plus 8 percent interest for that. Medicaid costs will go up $60 or $70 million, maybe more. Of course other costs will rise as well, but just the Medicaid and KPERS increases alone will push expenses to $6.5 billion, far above recurring revenue. And the bank account will be empty and the highway fund tapped out.
Will lawmakers be able to address problems in the budget like staffing shortages at state hospitals and prisons? Not without making the overall financial situation worse.
What happens if the Kansas Supreme Court declares school funding constitutionally inadequate? The state will have little recourse.
What happens if the economy actually goes into recession? Everything gets worse.
The Kansas budget has been structurally unbalanced every year since the 2012/2013 tax cuts went into effect, putting the state in a highly precarious financial situation. Budget actions in this legislative session did not address or correct that.
The state's grim financial prognosis will persist until the underlying problem gets fixed.
Guide to Kansas Supreme Court proceeding in school finance lawsuit case
At 9 a.m. Tuesday, the Kansas Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the school finance lawsuit.
In this long-running litigation, the Kansas Supreme Court in February said the school finance law was unconstitutional because it created inequities in funding and tax burden that harmed low wealth districts and their students.
In March, the Legislature approved a bill supporters say cures those inequities, while the school districts suing the state say the amount of funding falls short and the law allows continued unequal tax treatment.
On Tuesday, both sides will present their cases to the court, and if past hearings on school finance are any indication, there will be many questions from the justices.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT:
The court has ruled the Kansas Constitution requires that school districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort. In its February decision, the court said without a constitutionally equitable finance system, schools would be unable to operate after June 30. Both the state and plaintiff districts say a shutdown of schools would be harmful but some districts have started planning for a “worst-case scenario,” if the court and Legislature fail to agree on a remedy.
The new law doesn’t provide any new funding for schools, but shuffles what was appropriated earlier. Most are in agreement the state’s continued revenue shortfalls will require Gov. Sam Brownback to make significant budget cuts, which raises concerns about where the state would get the money if the court ruled an increase was necessary.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING:
Tuesday’s oral arguments are seven weeks before the June 30 school shutdown deadline. Schools have numerous programs in place during the summer and are gearing up for the next school year. Any disruption of funding could threaten summer programs, employee pay, maintenance of facilities and the timely start of the next school year.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT:
After the oral arguments, the court takes the case under advisement and then issue a decision. Although the court is under no specific deadline, the court has put the case on a fast-track, and most believe it will announce a decision soon. A ruling against the state could prompt a special Legislative Session or legislators could return for the official close of the 2016 session on June 1 and deliberate then. Separate from the equity case, an even bigger portion of the school finance lawsuit remains before the Kansas Supreme Court and that revolves around whether the level of school funding is adequate for students to meet educational outcomes set by the state. A three-judge panel has ruled state funding falls far short; a decision that, if upheld, could mean $550 million more per year for schools. A ruling in that case is not expected until probably next year.