There's some deja vu happening in the world of education in Kansas.
About a year ago the state legislature was racing the clock to deal with a supreme court ruling, one that could have resulted in the shutdown of schools. It would appear, at least in the minds of school officials, that much the same is happening again this year.
The Legislature is debating a new funding formula for schools — and how much funding will go into that formula — in the final days of the 2017 Legislative session. Just like last year, the Legislature is trying to respond to yet another supreme court ruling — one that favored schools.
“We have been presented with a plan that raises $750 million over five years,” said Rep. Tim Hodge, a Democrat from Newton. “However, I don't know if that will pass constitutional muster because of the length of time it will take to implement. I don't believe the court will allow us to do this process over the course of five years, because the legislature may change in that course of time and we could have another problem.”
Hodge is a lawyer by trade, and he told The Kansan he has read the court decision. It is based on his reading that he believes that the $750 million plan will be rebuffed — as would another plan passed out of a house committee this week. Hodge is also a member of the USD 373 board of education.
This week a Kansas House committee has approved a proposal to phase in a $280 million increase in spending on public schools over two years after whittling down the larger funding plan — but it is unclear if that will pass muster.
Democratic Rep. Tom Sawyer, of Wichita, said with the plan, "We will get laughed out of court."
“From my reading of the case and talking with other folks, there is no way that will pass constitutional muster,” Hodge said. “Out of the plans produced, they are unlikely to pass constitutional scrutiny. I liken it to someone given a court order to pay $1,000 to the other party and they insist on only paying $500. The court will not look favorably on a party that insists on paying half or less of what they owe.”
If that is the result, it could create a serious problem for school districts across the state.
“We believe … that we will not be allowed to open,” said Deb Hamm, superintendent of schools for Newton USD 373.
“That is a very real possibility,” Hodge added. “If the Republican led super majorities can not come up with a plan that is constitutional, then the schools may very well close in the fall. … I don't think [Legislators] realize that could happen, and that is a real problem. They can't fathom that schools may not open in the fall. Therein lies part of the problem.”
Time is running short. Tuesday represented the 92nd day of a legislative session scheduled for 100 days. In order to ensure schools open on time for the 2017-18 school year, the legislature must complete a school funding formula, set a funding level for education funding in the budget and have those solutions blessed by the court.
The special committee on school finance has been mired in several weeks of discussions about the details of a new per-student formula for distributing state dollars to Kansas' 286 school districts. It's designed to ensure that enough of the money helps students who are at risk of failing.
The state spends about $4 billion a year on aid to its 286 local school districts. The court did not say how much more the state must spend.
The committee started Monday with a plan to phase in a $783 million increase over five years. However, some members questioned whether lawmakers would boost taxes enough to pay for it. A plan to levy more than a billion in new taxes was put before legislators Tuesday.
“What we are trying to do is work on our colleagues to help them see that the Brownback tax experiment was an utter failure and it has bankrupted our schools, roads and hospitals,” Hodge said. “We are trying to repeal that legislation from 2012, so we can get back on firmer fiscal footing.”
Disagreements over the total size of the spending increase for education threatened to hold up further work, so some moderate Republicans accepted a smaller plan — temporarily, they said. The vote was 10-6, sending the measure to the House for debate later this week.
"We were at a brick wall," said Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Fairway Republican.
The Supreme Court did not say how much lawmakers must increase state aid to schools, now about $4 billion a year. But John Robb, an attorney representing the districts suing the state, said last week that even the committee's larger plan was inadequate.
Hamm told The Kansan under the smaller plan, cuts would be needed within Newton schools. A list of possible cuts was created in 2015, however were diverted after the legislature completed work on a funding package last summer. Those cuts, however, are back on the table entering the 2017 budget process.
The budget process is behind schedule as the district awaits decisions by the Legislature. The 2017-18 budget proposal is due to the county clerk's office by Aug. 25.
“We have not started the process, because we really do not know what we have to do yet,” Hamm said.
Some action has already taken place, however. When Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Human resources Russ Miller announced he was leaving the district, it was decided the position would not be filled. The duties he performed will be split up and assigned to other central office employees. Hamm said the district would gain about $60,0000 with that move.
At the high school ,teaching positions in the social studies area will not be filled.
“We were a little heavy in social studies,” Hamm said. “We do have other needs. We need more science people and foreign language people.”
The district is ready, at least with a plan, for a possible closure or delay of opening if it comes to that. The plan in place was created last year and includes partnerships for food storage and delivery reception by third parties while school buildings are closed. The district has a plan for changing locks to ensure no one, teachers included, enters the building during a shutdown.
“We have a great plan in what we developed last year when we thought it could happen,” Hamm said. “We still have a lot of concerns, but we have a plan. One concern is our classified staff. They will not be working and not earning a paycheck, and that is very scary. … The impact of this is real.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report