After sitting through a supreme court hearing Tuesday in which justices questioned attorneys about a new state funding law and allocation for public schools, Newton USD 373 Superintendent Deb Hamm had some very mixed feelings.
“I am both optimistic and a little on the concerned side,” Hamm said. “... I think it is an optimistic time for education in the area of funding. I believe it is inadequate, but it is great to have the opportunity to address some of the needs and to utilize funding, that based on (a previous lawsuit) districts should have had but have not had for seven or eight years.”
The court took the case under advisement, and will render a decision as to if Senate Bill 19 meets constitutional standards in relation to state aid for public schools.
That law phases in a $293 million increase in education funding over two years. The justices ruled in March that the state's then-$4 billion a year in aid to its 286 school districts was inadequate.
Hamm believes the court appeared sympathetic to the case of school districts which are seeking more funding than the legislature appropriated in the last legislative session. However, the timing of all of this is problematic.
“We have a budget to prepare and we have a deadline for getting that done,” Hamm said. “Whether or not today's hearings will impact a decision to withhold budgeting software until after the court makes a decision is a little concerning.”
The district has an internal deadline of Aug. 7 to present a budget to the Board of Education. Without software, all of the work of creating a budget document and calculating mill levies would be done by hand — a process Hamm called time consuming.
There is no timeline for the court decision, and it is unknown what the court will decide.
“The court could say it is OK and the Legislature did its job,” said Mark Tallman, head of the KASB Advocacy Department during a post-hearing webinar. “The court could say 'you did not do your job at all, go back to work and by the way have a special session — we will give you a month.' Those are the two extremes that we see.”
According to the Kansas Association of School Boards and Hamm, Kansas Supreme Court justices on Tuesday aggressively questioned attorneys for the state who were defending the new school finance law during oral arguments in the long-running lawsuit.
“The court justices indicated their doubts in relations to the state's case,” Hamm said. “The state's position has flaws and the justices were pointing those out by virtue of the questions they asked.”
Last month, the Legislature approved SB19, which increased school funding by nearly $200 million this school year and an additional $100 million next year. Attorneys for the state told the court the increases were significant and a good-faith effort in achieving constitutionally adequate funding, while plaintiffs school districts argued the funding falls far short and advised the court to order an $893 million increase, which had been recommended by the State Board of Education.
Justice Dan Biles pointed out during questions much of the new state funding simply replaced funds cut in earlier years by the Legislature.
“I don't think he is alone; reading the facial expressions and nods of the justices he was not alone in a distrust in the Legislature to follow through on their promise,” Hamm said.
Justice Lee Johnson pointed out the last two years of block grants, a system used to replace a previous funding formula, resulted in flat funding to schools. According to KASB, the new increase barely covers inflation and the last time the school finance formula was constitutional, base state aid per student was more than it is under the new law.
School districts suing for more funding say the state needs to add nearly $900 million over two years for funding to be adequate. But an attorney for the state countered that the new law vastly improved the previous way schools were funded.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report