Legislator and school superintendents

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN LAURA CAMPBELL
When Kansas legislators meet in special session starting June 22 to act on last week’s court ruling that the state boost school spending by $285 million this year, Rep. Don Dahl of Hillsboro won’t be the only one who thinks the Kansas Supreme Court overstepped its boundaries with the decision.

“There’s a lot of legislators who think that the legislature should just ignore the Supreme Court,” Dahl said.

The mandated increase, more than twice the extra $142 million legislators had approved earlier this year, will bring education spending this year to about $3 billion, up 10 percent from last year.

The court gave legislators a July 1 deadline to approve the change.

The increase ordered by the court is one-third of the amount recommended by a 4-year-old consultant’s report requested by the Legislature.

The court said it also could order an additional $568 million in spending for the 2006-07 school year-the remaining two-thirds of the consultant’s recommendation.

The court’s ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed against the state six years ago by mid-size school districts, claiming unconstitutionally inadequate funding for educational programs.

The court agreed with their claim in last week’s unanimous decision: “As of this time, the Legislature has failed to provide suitable funding for a constitutionally adequate education.”

Lawmakers had already scraped up $142 million extra for schools this year-without raising taxes-in response to a Jan. 3 Supreme Court ruling that schools were underfunded.

Adding new money for all schools, the law targeted additional funding to at-risk, special-education and bilingual students, as the court requested.

Many state lawmakers, including Dahl, have balked at the idea of following the latest court order. He said the order amounts to nothing more than a mandate to raise taxes.

“They said that the state of Kansas should spend an additional $1.2 billion (over the next three years),” Dahl said. “That gets to be quite a bit of money, and the state of Kansas does not have that money.

“So basically what the Supreme Court is telling us is to raise taxes.”

Dahl said the issue is not a lack of concern for state education.

“Nobody argues that they wouldn’t want to put more money into education,” Dahl said. “The problem is, can we afford it?”

He said cutting into the budgets of other state-funded programs, such as social services, is not a viable option.

“Their budgets haven’t been increased as much as the education budget,” Dahl said. “It’s the schools that have been getting the money.”

It is unreasonable to expect other programs to give up more of their already-small portion of the state’s money, he said.

“We’re already spending two-thirds of our state general fund on education,” Dahl said. “We have to fund all of the other stuff out of the other third.”

And anyone who expects gambling to raise state revenue is believing a lie, he said.

“All it does is distribute poverty and misery,” Dahl said. “Then we as taxpayers are going to have to pick up the cost of the social problems, while the people who cause it are taking the money out of state.”

The last thing the state needs, Dahl said, is more people leaving with their money. But higher taxes will only exacerbate that problem.

“Kansas is in a situation where it’s basically losing jobs and companies, and people are moving out of state,” he said. “A lot of it is because we’re already a high-tax state.”

But whether or not legislators approve the court’s mandated increase in the coming weeks, Dahl said smaller school districts like USD 410 should have adequate education funding for their programs.

“They’re going to come out good no matter what happens,” he said.

Still, USD 410 superintendent Gordon Mohn said the Hillsboro schools could put the extra money to good use, possibly toward boosting teacher salaries.

“We have a provision in our negotiations that if our increase exceeds a certain dollar amount, that we’ll reopen negotiations,” Mohn said. “So I would guess that at least some of that would go toward teachers’ salaries.

“That’s not settled yet, but we’ll at least be back at the negotiation table,” he said.

USD 410 had been allotted an extra $153,440 by state legislators earlier this year, Mohn said, a 3.7 percent increase from last year.

But he said the adjusted amount they will receive this year, if legislators approve the court order, is still uncertain.

“We don’t know yet what impact it will have on us,” Mohn said. “They talk about doubling the amount of dollars, but that’s statewide, so it will depend on how they appropriate that additional money. So we can’t necessarily say it will double the increase we were expecting.”

Mohn said he hopes the legislators uphold the court’s decision, not just because it will boost school funding, but because it’s the constitutional thing to do.

“I think we’ve demonstrated through the democratic process how the legislature and the courts ought to work together,” he said. “It’s our legislator’s responsibility to respect the Kansas constitution and understand how Kansas government works.”

And it will be each school’s responsibility, said USD 408 superintendent Lee Leiker, to be good stewards of the additional funds, especially to help at-risk students.

“Our goal is to utilize those funds for education improvement, to better serve our students that are in some of the categories that have been discussed,” Leiker said.

In addition to improvements like smaller classroom sizes, more advanced technology and additional paraeducator support, Leiker said he would like to see additional funding go toward professional education development for Marion’s teachers.

“That’s money that just hasn’t been spent in the past as well as I think it needs to in order to maximize benefits for students,” he said.

The Marion school district had been allotted an extra $110,734 by the Legislature’s decision earlier this year.

Leiker and Mohn agreed the court order can mean nothing but good for their school systems and for others throughout the state.

“It shows a concern for education in Kansas, and I appreciate that as a professional educator,” Leiker said.

“It’s good news for Kansas kids,” Mohn added. “I’m hopeful that, after the politics of all of this is over, we’ll come out with something good to help the kids.

“I think we will.”

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