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Funding Measure Averts School Closings in Kansas

July 09, 2005|From Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. — Schools will open as planned in August after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Friday that the Legislature had complied with a court order to increase public school funding.

The justices had threatened to withhold state aid from public schools unless lawmakers raised school funding by $143 million by July 1.

The Legislature approved its $148.4-million plan Wednesday night, the 12th and final day of a special session. The court had scheduled its hearing four days before legislators approved their plan.

"The present solution may not be ideal," the court wrote in a three-page order, signed by Chief Justice Kay McFarland. "However, it is approved for interim purposes."

The Supreme Court said it would continue to monitor the Legislature's efforts to improve education funding.

"It's great that teachers, parents and students can focus on learning, rather than wondering whether schoolhouse doors will be open in the fall," Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said. "Still, we have lots of work to do."

The legislative package included $27.7 million in property tax relief, and legislators worried that the court might not count those dollars as fulfilling its mandate. The court did not mention that issue in its order.

School districts will begin receiving the increased spending in September. State aid to schools will total about $3 billion for the next academic year. Classes resume in about six weeks.

"We had lots of people calling, wondering if they really would close schools, but I had a feeling that we would have a positive resolution," said Kathy Cook, executive director of Kansas Families United for Public Education.

The Kansas Supreme Court was not the first to use school closure as a threat in education litigation.

In New Jersey in 1976, the state's highest court ordered schools to remain closed, forcing legislators to improve funding. Threats from high courts in Arizona and Texas compelled legislators in those states to do the same.

Kansas' school funding debate is the latest development in a lawsuit filed in 1999 by parents and administrators in Dodge City and Salina. They argued that the state did not spend enough money on schools and distributed its aid unfairly.

The justices said they would retain control of the case, allowing them to review future legislative action, including a study of educational costs already in the works.

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