The below statement was released on the Leavenworth USD 453 facebook page.
On Friday, May 27, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the school funding law passed by the Kansas Legislature in late March 2016 is unconstitutional. The Court had previously ruled in February that the existing school finance law created inequities in funding and an unfair local tax burden that harmed low-wealth districts and their students. The Court set a June 30 deadline for the legislature to comply with educational obligations contained within Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution. The Court’s concern is that the new formula allows wealthier districts to raise more money locally, with less tax effort, than less wealthy districts. Kansas tax rates are described in terms of mill levies. A mill levy is equal to $1 in taxes for every $1,000 in assessed value. In Leavenworth specifically, 1 mill raises approximately $183,245. School districts with higher assessed valuation can raise exponentially more (e.g., DeSoto = $412,028; Olathe = $1,804,506; Blue Valley $2,885,440; Shawnee Mission = $3,022,420), thus creating the inequities that the court has deemed as unconstitutional. The guiding philosophy being that all Kansas students should receive the same access to educational opportunities, regardless of the zip code that they live in, and that residents of that school district should not be disproportionately taxed to make up the difference.
Even though the June 30 deadline has been known to the Kansas Legislature since February, and reinforced by the decision on May 27, the Kansas Senate and House of Representatives both adjourned on Wednesday, June 1, without resolving the equalization issue at hand. This would now require a special session to be ordered by Governor Sam Brownback for legislators to return from break to address the Supreme Court’s decision and make attempts to avoid a shutdown of Kansas schools.
The current block grant funding system was developed as a temporary two-year solution to provide school districts with predictability while a new, “simpler” school finance formula was developed, however, that has not happened to date. The block grant also froze funding at 2013-14 levels, without any considerations for rising health care costs and inflation. Multiple courts have provided guidance on various options that would be deemed constitutional, including reverting back to the previous school finance formula in place prior to the block grants. The current block grant school finance formula had been previously deemed unconstitutional by a three-judge panel in the Shawnee County District Court in June 2015, with additional funding ordered. Rather than appropriate additional funding for the 2015-16 school year, the state chose to appeal the decision to the Kansas Supreme Court, and in the meantime has yet to develop and deliver a school finance system to the court that increases spending or state aid to school districts.
The range of possible solutions to the court’s decision has been limited by an unwillingness to revisit the 2013 tax policy that has resulted in a $1 billion reduction in state revenues. The state’s credit rating has been downgraded three times in two years and monthly revenues continue to fall short of estimates. Most recently, the month of May yielded an additional $74 million shortfall, which immediately causes the state’s recently approved Fiscal Year 2016 budget a deficit of $55 million. This means additional state spending cuts or budgetary allotments are in the near future, making it even more difficult to find the estimated $30-40 million dollars to satisfy the equalization issue of school funding. Additionally, while the state chose to appeal the decision of the lower court to the Kansas Supreme Court, since the decision there are now strong objections by state elected officials that the court does not have the authority to execute implications of the June 30 deadline. Prior to adjourning on June 1, some went so far as to openly suggest the Governor pardons anyone found in contempt of court if schools are closed. Others repeated the mantra that Kansas schools are receiving “record amounts of funding,” without the explanation that this description is only valid since the state began counting contributions to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. With much work left undone, these are examples of the mindsets and attitudes that might detract from a solutions-focused spirit of leadership and collaboration required to find a solution on behalf of Kansas students and families by the end of this month.
In their decision, the Kansas Supreme Court states that without a constitutionally valid system in place, schools will be unable to raise, distribute, or spend monies. If the June 30 deadline passes, school districts anticipate further clarification from the Kansas Supreme Court and the Kansas Department of Education as to what, if any, school district services or functions will be deemed critical. In addition to ongoing maintenance, cleaning, and facilities projects that are intentionally scheduled for the summer months to limit disruption to teaching and learning, there are a number of planned activities that would likely be halted: Child Nutrition Summer Meal Program; Elementary Summer Boost program; Horizon Kids Summer Camp; summer school; driver’s education; sports camps and practices; etc. A shutdown of any period of time will result in unknown scheduling impacts for the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, as student enrollment efforts would be delayed. In addition, if school districts are unable to make payments to employees (or any other entities), there is a risk that individuals will seek work elsewhere and be unavailable to support necessary district functions, regardless of when an adjusted first day of school is scheduled. This list could include custodians, cooks, bus drivers, paraprofessionals, teachers, etc. Working families will be forced to explore temporary child care solutions for an unknown duration, and most importantly, students will not be in classrooms and run the risk of falling behind their grade-level peers in surrounding states.
The June 30 deadline to avoid a school shutdown has been known to the Kansas Legislature since February.
It is critical for all members of our school community (students, parents, staff, business owners, and residents) to pay close attention to whether or not this issue is resolved prior to the stated deadline. If the Legislature, and/or Governor, does not make avoiding a shutdown of schools their top priority – with each passing day of inactivity, it becomes increasingly likely that school operations will be halted beginning July 1, and the tentatively scheduled first day of school for all students on August 16, would be pushed back.
The current school finance decision, and those before it, is a product of the judicial branch independently determining if the legislative branch is upholding its constitutional duty. It is the real world application of the checks-and-balances democracy that is taught in U.S. History and Government lessons. Since 1992, 35 different justices have reviewed evidence and considered witness testimony on the subject of school finance, and repeatedly found in favor of Kansas schools. Last week’s judicial decision reaffirms the belief that all Kansas youth deserve the same opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills to be college and career ready.
Public education is a primary responsibility of the State of Kansas, and in our belief, a key component of a healthy economic development policy. Future business owners, innovators, and leaders are being taught each day by dedicated Kansas educators. And now we wait…and hope that the current leaders entrusted with upholding the will of the people and the state’s constitution, are sincere in their desire to avoid any disruption to public education in Kansas.
Unless and until instructed otherwise, Leavenworth Unified School District administrators and staff will continue to work throughout the summer months to facilitate ongoing educational services, while also making plans for a successful 2016-17 school year. If the June 30 deadline is reached without legislative or executive response, additional information will be shared with our school community and patrons as it becomes available. There is no precedent in the State of Kansas for a school closure, or even in surrounding states, to help predict exactly what might happen. For those of us committed to the mission of preparing every student for success in every classroom, every day, it is an extremely frustrating and challenging time to be in public education. It is our hope to have the uninterrupted opportunity to continue to partner with our school families, and community, to support student well-being and success. However and whenever the school equalization issue is ultimately decided, Leavenworth Public Schools will work tirelessly to minimize impacts on our students, families, employees, and community-at-large.
Proud to be a Pioneer,
Superintendent of Schools