July 20, 2024

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Denning: ‘We Did Our Work on Schools Last Year’

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The Kansas Legislature will have a solution for school funding by April, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning told the Sunflower Republican Club on Saturday.

“We will give it to the Courts, and we’ll go home,” he said.

The Kansas Supreme Court gave lawmakers an April deadline to create a new school financing formula. Denning told a group of grassroots supporters the legislature will have a new funding scheme before a first adjournment set for April 8.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning

The Overland Park Republican clarified lawmakers will stay beyond April 6, if necessary, to complete a new school financing scheme. The majority leader was joined by Sens. Molly Baumgardner and Rob Olson. Baumgardner chairs the Senate’s education committee.

She said she wants the four school district plaintiffs in the Gannon lawsuit–Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City, and Wichita districts–to agree to abide by whatever financing terms legislators adopt.

Right now, the Louisburg Republican said, those school districts are running the state. “That really is the tail that’s wagging the dog,” she said.

Kansas school districts have been suing the state for more funding since the 1970s. The 2010 Gannon lawsuit marks a re-opening of the 1999 Montoy lawsuit. In each instance, school districts sued alleging state funding doesn’t meet constitutional guidelines. The Court’s most recent decision ruled a funding formula adopted last year unconstitutional. That formula pumped an additional $300 million into public schools.

“I consider our work on schools done,” Denning told the Sunflower Republican Club. “We did it last year.”

Still, he suggested lawmakers will comply with the Court’s latest demands for a new formula. Justices didn’t say how much funding will be required to meet constitutional muster, but officials appear to agree dollar amount is $600 million or more.

Constitutional Amendment

“If the Supreme Court rules it unconstitutional–I’m only speaking for myself–I don’t plan on working on a court solution,” Denning said “I plan on working on a Constitutional amendment.”

The continuous lawsuits have created a constitutional impasse, in which lawmakers and the Court attempt to balance which branch of state government is responsible for setting funding levels for schools. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt in December recommended lawmakers consider some sort of constitutional amendment to end the standoff. A constitutional amendment would require adoption by two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers as well as a winning ballot initiative.

School Consolidation

Lawmakers have yet to begin serious work on a school funding proposal as they await the outcome of a study due this week. Denning said one positive is that the study will include information about sparsity. Denning stopped short of using the word “consolidation,” but Olson said lawmakers should look in that direction.

“We need to look at some consolidation,” he said. “We’ve got districts with only 50 students in them.”

No More Tax Increases

With a state budget that’s set to be under water in the next two years, lawmakers will have to make cuts elsewhere or increase taxes to add much funding to public schools. Lawmakers initiated the largest tax increase in state history last session in conjunction with adopting the now-scrapped school financing scheme.

“There’s no move from the majority to have any more tax increases,” Denning said. “That’s over.”

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