Kansas attorney general asks court to back off threat to close schools
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt is asking the state Supreme Court to back off its threat to close public schools over funding inequities, arguing that Gov. Sam Brownback and legislative leaders have vowed to address the issue in an upcoming special session.
“An African proverb cautions that ‘when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled,’” Schmidt said in a motion filed with the court late Friday.
“To prevent harm to Kansas schoolchildren, their families, and the many Kansans who otherwise rely on having schools open and operating — who are not part of this dispute among the three branches of their government — the State respectfully requests this court withdraw its twice-repeated warning that it may enter an order that would result in the closing of Kansas Public schools,” he said.
On May 27, the court struck down one part of the most recent funding plan adopted by the Legislature, saying that it forces poor districts to levy higher property taxes than wealthier ones in order to achieve comparable levels of funding.
It gave the Legislature until June 30 to correct the problem, repeating a threat it had made in an earlier decision that if the Legislature fails to adopt an equitable funding formula, it would mean “no constitutionally valid school finance system exists” to fund schools next year.
That would mean, “the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate beyond June 30.”
In his motion Friday, Schmidt repeated the claim asserted by many Republicans, that the amount of money at issue in the dispute is only $38 million, or less than 1 percent of the total education budget.
“The English language contains many colloquialisms that are as apt here as any legal treatise,” Schmidt wrote. “No remedy imposed in this — or any — case should ‘destroy the village in order to save it,’ ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater,’ ‘use a sledgehammer to kill a fly,’ or impose the ‘death penalty for parking violations.’”
In its May 27 opinion, however, the court said the unequal funding makes the entire “local option budget” formula unconstitutional, and that LOBs, in their entirety, make up about $1 billion, or 25 percent of the total education budget.
Schmidt also argued that closing public schools would itself violate the Kansas Constitution, which requires that schools be “maintained.”
He also suggested the possibility of appealing the case to federal court, arguing that closing public schools would violate the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which guarantees children with disabilities have access to special education services.
Schmidt said his office knew of only one other time when a state court shut down public schools over funding issues, in New Jersey in 1976, only a few months after IDEA was enacted, during a period when the new law was in the early stages of implementation.
Alan Rupe, an attorney for the plaintiff school districts in the case was dismissive of Schmidt’s latest motion.
“We are hopeful the Court will see past these thinly-veiled threats,” he said. “This is yet another attempt by the Legislature to avoid its constitutional obligations.”