Judge’s finance ruling fuels mixed reactions

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
A district judge’s ruling last week that school funding is inadequate and unfairly distributed in Kansas has generated both support and criticism-depending, to a large degree, whether you’re the folks who work with schools or the folks who have to work with the state budget.

In response to a case filed by four midsize districts in Kansas, Judge Terry Bullock of the Shawnee District Court ruled last Tuesday that the state’s current school-finance law violates the state and U.S. constitutions.

His requirement: boost school spending by $1 billion a year-which is about a 20 percent increase from the current level. The Kansas Legislature has until July 1 to comply with his order.

Gordon Mohn, superintendent for Unified School District 410, applauded the decision even though Hillsboro schools-and other small districts-may not benefit significantly from a boost in funding statewide.

“For people who are advocates for kids and advocates for schools, this couldn’t be better news,” Mohn said. “If you take away the issues of how do we find a way to pay for this-and make your judgment on the side of what’s best for children here in Kansas-it’s great news, especially for poor kids and minority kids.”

Mohn said he agreed that schools across Kansas are not funded equitably, as Bullock ruled. He said he saw the differences firsthand when he recently toured Wichita North High as part of a study at Wichita State University.

“All you have to do is walk into North High School and you begin to understand the inequities there are in Kansas schools,” he said. “There’s no way that every child at North High School gets the kind of attention that every child at Hillsboro High School gets. They absolutely cannot do it.”

Had Bullock simply focused on the “equitable” issue, Hillsboro actually might have been hurt financially, Mohn said.

“What most schools our size-and smaller schools-were afraid of was that he would only address the equitable issue,” Mohn said. “Then, in order to make things equitable, we’d have to redivide the pie-so we’d lose.”

But Bullock also concurred with the plaintiff’s claim that the entire Kansas school system is underfunded and in violation if the state constitutional requirement that the Legislature “make suitable provision” to finance education.

“It’s always been my contention that the Hillsboros, the Hesstons, the Marions-our sized schools-are in the best shape financially as anybody in Kansas,” Mohn said. “And we do provide a suitable education. So at least it’s hard to argue that you decrease support for those schools that are doing pretty well.”

Dahl said the look of a “suitable” education is harder to define than an “equitable” one.

“The thing about ‘suitable’ is whose definition are you going to use? His or somebody else’s?” Dahl said.

“What (Bullock) thinks needs to happen to make it suitable is to throw more money at education-then you’ll have a suitable education,” Dahl added. “I’m saying, does that mean the courses you offer, the amount of courses-or does it just pertain to money?”

The bottom line, though, according to Dahl and many of his fellow legislators, is where would an extra $1 billion come from?

“When you see the state budget is $10 billion, and you see the general fund is around $5 billion, we’re talking about a 20 percent increase in taxes,” he said. “How are we going to do that?”

Mohn said the Legislature has only itself to blame for the judge’s cost estimate.

“In my opinion, the Legislature asked for the study. They commissioned it, they helped define what a suitable education is, they got the information-and they refused to act on it,” Mohn said.

“They’ve created, in some ways, their own problem-I think that’s what the judge pointed out,” he added.

“I think (Bullock) said somewhere in his decision that he wasn’t sure how to determine a suitable education, but he also said, ‘The Legislature is taking it on and I’m using your own numbers.'”

The Wichita Eagle suggested last week that an extra $1 billion could be raised by:

— A 3-cent increase in the sales tax, currently at 5.3 cents on the dollar.

— Tripling the statewide school property tax, which stands at $20 for $1,000 of assessed evaluation.

“I don’t think it will take a tripling of property tax to do it, but who knows?” Mohn said.

But Dahl said any significant increase in taxes would harm Kansas in the long run.

“Everybody wants to fund education, but other things need to be funded too-like (services for the) the disabled, and we’ve got to have an infrastructure, and the cities and counties are already screaming because we cut back on demand transfer money we usually send from the state.

“That’s where I really think it’s going to cause a showdown,” he added. “The state just does not have any money.

“We’re trying to recuperate our economy just like every other state. To have something like this thrown in our laps could just throw the Kansas recovery down the drain.

“We have to compete with our neighboring states to make us a business-friendly environment. If we don’t have business, we don’t have a tax structure.”

Both Dahl and Mohn foresee a showdown of some sort between the legislative branch and judiciary branch over this issue.

“I think it will be a test of wills with the legislature.” Mohn said. “I’ve been surprised how brazen some legislators have been. What I heard them saying was, ‘Don’t bully us.'”

Dahl, who characterized Bullock as “a liberal, activist judge,” empathizes with that stand.

“I have a feeling it will (turn into a showdown)-unless you want to become another California, with judges dictating how much money you’re going to spend in the budget and how much taxes you’re going to raise,” he said.

“There’s going to be some kind of showdown.”

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