Archive for Wednesday, February 23, 2011

School lawsuit in national spotlight

Shawnee Mission School District

Shawnee Mission School District

February 23, 2011

A ruling is expected within two to three weeks in the lawsuit filed by a group of Shawnee Mission USD 512 parents against the state over its cap on how much can be raised for education through property taxes.

Parties involved in the lawsuit had a teleconference Friday to continue the discussion over whether the state’s local option budget cap could be declared unconstitutional without invalidating the entire system for funding education in Kansas.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge John W. Lungstrum asked Tristan Duncan, attorney for the Shawnee Mission parents, to draft a hypothetical injunction that would be used in the event the cap was rendered unconstitutional. She presented the draft Friday.

Alan Rupe, an attorney representing parents in other Kansas districts, said the other main issue considered this week was whether school districts have an inherent ability to tax and spend apart from the state.

Rupe said the issue was not discussed during Friday’s call.

The state’s constitution guarantees adequate funding and equitable distribution of that funding for all Kansas schoolchildren, Rupe said in a statement.

“As long as there is a statewide system, equity and adequacy should prevail,” he said.

Gov. Sam Brownback is a defendant in the lawsuit. Press Secretary Sherriene Jones-Sontag said Brownback believed the Legislature and not the courts should make any decision on financing Kansas’ public schools. A proposed amendment to the state constitution introduced in the Legislature would remove the Kansas Supreme Court from ruling on school-funding issues.

Duncan said the perception in western Kansas that the Shawnee Mission was a rich school district was a myth.

“It’s a fiction that the Shawnee Mission school district is rich, that we have all the money we need for the classroom,” she said.

Duncan said that while the district annually receives ample funding for facilities, it is in the bottom 5 percent for state aid for classroom instruction.

The group of parents in December filed its lawsuit in federal court, challenging the cap Kansas places on the amount of public money that can be raised for education.

While Kansas provides a base amount of state aid per pupil, individual school districts can only raise an additional 31 percent of that base through a local option budget.

Three days after the lawsuit was filed, the Shawnee Mission school board voted to close two middle schools — Antioch and Mission Valley — and Bonjour Elementary effective this fall, saving the district an estimated $1.9 million. In November, the board also voted to close Dorothy Moody Elementary at the end of the 2011-12 school year to save an additional $500,000.

In its initial statement, the parents group called for the board to vote against or reconsider the closings. Decisions such as this, some have said, have the parents eager to contribute more through taxes but feeling helpless because of the state’s cap.

“We’re impoverished and are being told we can’t do anything about it,” Duncan said. “That’s about as un-American as you can get.”

Duncan said the state didn’t have a legitimate interest in the district’s pursuit of excellence.

“We’re making the argument that our right to spend our money as we choose is being denied and our protection is being denied,” she said.

All the parents are trying to do, Duncan said, is to use their own money to raise the district’s funding level to be commensurate with that of other districts in the state.

“We aren’t seeking to take one penny from a single school district,” Duncan said.

The case has made headlines nationally and Molly Hunter, director of education justice at the Education Law Center in New Jersey, has taken a particular interest.

“There have been a lot of cases having to do with school funding but not anything like this,” Hunter said.

Because of the case’s unique nature, Hunter said it’s difficult to predict its outcome.

“This particular aspect of school funding doesn’t go to court,” Hunter said. “It’s usually decided by legislators.”

Shawnee Mission USD 512 is not a party in the lawsuit. Leigh Anne Neal, associate superintendent for communications, said the district has not taken an official position on the suit. She did say increased flexibility for local funding was a “point of advocacy” for the district at the legislative level.

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