Kansas court may keep schools closed over funding demand

Sunday, July 3, 2005

A lawsuit filed in 1999 argued the state did not spend enough money on schools and distributed its aid unfairly.

TOPEKA, Kan. -- The Kansas Supreme Court said Saturday it will consider keeping schools closed because state legislators have failed to comply with the court's demand that they spend more money on public schools.

Students are already on summer break in Kansas and aren't scheduled to return until August. However, if the legislature doesn't resolve the funding issue, the court could keep 445,000 students and 64,000 teachers and staff from returning to the classroom when the new school year starts.

The court's order suggested it could even block spending on bond payments, leases and other financial obligations.

Saturday marked the 11th day of a legislative special session called by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to try to answer the court's demand. Lawmakers worked through the day but adjourned for the holiday weekend without a solution.

Attorney General Phill Kline urged parents not to panic.

"This office will continue to do all within its power that is legal and responsible to ensure that schools open," Kline said.

He said he was working with State Board of Education members to funnel funds already appropriated to school districts so that their distribution cannot be blocked.

The order was the latest development in a school finance lawsuit filed in 1999 by parents and administrators in Dodge City and Salina, who argued the state did not spend enough money on schools and distributed its aid unfairly.

The court ruled in January that legislators had failed to fulfill a constitutional duty to finance a suitable education for every child, then followed up with a ruling in June demanding additional money.

'The nuclear option'

The justices had ordered legislators to provide an additional $143 million no later than July 1, which lawmakers failed to do. The court now expects attorneys to appear for a hearing next Friday.

"This was the nuclear option," said Sen. John Vratil, a Republican from the Kansas City suburb Leawood. "These justices are obviously on a fast track. They're not fiddling around with procedure."

One issue holding up passage of an education funding bill has been a desire by some legislators to change the state Constitution to limit the court's power.

Many Republican legislators, particularly conservatives, believed the court overstepped its constitutional authority by telling legislators exactly how much to spend on schools.

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