House leader calls for special legislative session to fix school finance

Gov. Sam Brownback (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Leadership in the Kansas House is now calling for a special session to fix school funding. Lawmakers are under a Kansas Supreme Court mandate to fix school funding, or public schools will be shut down at the end of the month.

Republican Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr. of Olathe, is the chairman of the Kansas House Appropriations Committee. Appropriations is where the money is spent.

In his Facebook page on Friday, Ryckman Jr. wrote the following:

Earlier this evening, I sent the following letter to my fellow House lawmakers.

Colleagues,

The never-ending cycle of school finance litigation is back in full swing and the threats by the Supreme Court are real. To a point, one might reasonably question the political intent of the Supreme Court, but now is not the time for that.

Ryckman goes on to say the courts are to blame for playing politics.

The Kansas Supreme Court offered a mandate recently telling lawmakers to get back to work, or school funding will stop July 1.

Some lawmakers say legislators avoided meaningful talk on school finance the entire session.

“The governor and legislature must get to work immediately to keep our schools open,” said Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat. “Parents and grandparents, students and teachers demand action on this critical issue.”

Lawmakers did not act on a new school finance system this year, even though many legislators said they should have replaced the block grant funding put in place as a temporary funding measure.

While the block grant did not offer any new money for schools, lawmakers say the court mandate is something different. The Kansas Supreme Court ruling is all about equity. Monies were not found to be equal between rich and poor districts.

Some lawmakers said the courts did not leave legislators enough time to fix the equity issue this year because the court order came out very recently.

“And this is a monstrous issue, when you have a Supreme Court that could potentially close down our schools, which is over 50 percent of the state budget,” said Sen. Michael O’Donnell, a Wichita Republican. “We’re definitely in a very precarious spot. But that still means we need to do our due diligence as well.”

O’Donnell maintains the court ruling came down just before the sign off day for lawmakers in what is known as the ceremonial last day of the session. He says that did not offer enough time.

Attorneys representing schools that have sued the state for more money for education say the schools will effectively shut down if nothing is done by the end of the month.

“You’ve got until June 30 to remedy this problem, and we’re now watching the clock tick away to June 30,” says Wichita attorney Alan Rupe, who helped several schools in a lawsuit over school funding.

Ryckman was very pointed in his letter, when it comes to the courts.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that a special session would not only keep the courts from overreaching and closing our schools, but it would also allow the legislature to address, perhaps finally and forever, the constitutional crisis that never-ending litigation creates. For this reason alone, a special session is necessary.” wrote Ryckman Jr.

Ward has maintained for more than a year the state is heading towards a constitutional crisis over school funding. He says lawmakers have been neglectful in coming to terms with what schools need.

O’Donnell on Saturday said he is waiting to see what comes next.

“I’m interested to see what Senate leadership would like to do,” said O’Donnell. “In regards to a special session, from the legislators to the school district and the people of Kansas, everyone wants to make sure schools stay open except for the Kansas Supreme Court.”

Those representing schools, who say they are fighting for more money for Kansas kids, say that’s not the case.

“Chronic underfunding,” said attorney Rupe. “The Kansas Supreme Court has indicated the schools will not be operating under an unconstitutional system, and when June 30th rolls around, unless the matter is fixed, there’s really not much else that can happen  other than when the funding stops, and when the funding stops, the schools stop operating.  Friday the courts ruled that the legislative fix was actually a fizz.”

Rep. Steve Huebert, a Valley Center Republican, says the schools will be open.

“And I just want to assure people that our schools are going to be open next year, and we have ongoing political processes, says Huebert. “but… I just want to ensure my constituents and my friends with kids in the schools that this will be dealt with. We will send the money that we have been allocated to the schools. We will make another good faith effort to work with the courts in regards to the equity issue.”

Other lawmakers say it’s time for a special session.

“I’m glad a decision has finally been made to address the court decision,” says Rep. Gail Finney, a Wichita Democrat. “And I’m looking forward to getting back to Topeka to fix education inequity school finance as soon as possible.”

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