Terry Bullock died last week in Topeka. He was 79, retired, and was a venerable and respected state judge in Shawnee County for more than 30 years, five of them as chief judge of the District Court. At times, he filled in on the state Court of Appeals.
For those who did not know him, Bullock was for at least two decades the spirited framer and father protector of our enduring system of local school finance.
Bullock was a legal scholar, a meticulous student and teacher of the law, and much of his time was devoted to umpiring the legal battles over education funding in Kansas. His scrupulous attention to the matter evoked the patience of a saint. With almost fussy guidance and painstaking fairness, Bullock helped governors and legislators craft and maintain a dramatic reform of public education funding, a system that survives today.
Bullock’s involvement had begun a generation ago in the summer of 1991, when he came to preside over an historic lawsuit. Dozens of school districts had sued the state, claiming the law no longer provided equitable financing or educational opportunities in Kansas school districts. Wide disparities in regional wealth could no longer be bridged with infusions of state aid, then an amount approaching $900 million. (It’s now more than $4 billion.)
As a result, the districts claimed that students, taxpayers and school districts were unconstitutionally disadvantaged.
Bullock was an eloquent and imposing judge with a reputation for reason and sharpness. He was expected to rule on this case by early fall, before the legislature convened in January 1992, but he would not be rushed. He realized that in the hands of politicians, the grandest designs may achieve only new forms of an old misery. The old setup, from 1973, had run its course.
Bullock might have issued orders, but he was no brute. Instead, he invited Gov. Joan Finney, legislators and others to a meeting in an auditorium at the state judicial center. The place was crowded, tense.
The judge noted that huge disparities in regional wealth, combined with funding law at that time, violated constitutional guarantees that the quality of education in a school district should not depend on the wealth of that district.
Because education is a state responsibility, Bullock said, regional wealth must be apportioned, or shared, more equitably.
As he finished reading his findings, Bullock sidestepped decree and fiat. Instead, he invited legislators and the governor to modify the law and suspended the lawsuits pending deliberations in the coming legislative session.
By mid-May 1992, after months of strained meetings and grinding debate, a new law emerged with historic reforms. Key components of the legislation included a statewide uniform property tax for schools and a central pool for distribution of revenues; it set local spending limits with some variation for exceptional costs (local option budgets). The law also ordered that funding be tied to the number of students to be educated, not district wealth; it added sales and income tax revenues to the funding pool; at the same time, it enacted new standards by which schools would be measured for student achievement.
There was more, but that’s the gist. Over time, the basic tenants of reform have remained, but for a brief and ghastly interruption by the Brownback virus.
Those old gears of basic local school funding have survived countless political assaults, well-worn complaints and numerous court challenges. Bullock issued additional rulings as those challenges unrolled, each time shoring the footings of equity. He reinforced a fundamental principle that all youngsters in Kansas, no matter their lineage, their locale, or their financial status, deserve good schools on solid footing.
Each August, Kansas school districts publish their proposed budgets for the coming school year. They are a general accounting of state and local effort, where the money comes from and where it goes. Those budgets have their roots in Terry Bullock’s invitation nearly 30 years ago for legislators and a governor to fix a broken system. And each August, when that block of columns and numbers is published, patrons and parents can thank Terry Bullock for his wisdom and foresight.