July 20, 2024

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Merriam Dem: Lawmakers Are Constitutionally Obligated to Fund Schools, Not Roads

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Schools need to be priority one, Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, told a meeting of several Johnson County lawmakers shortly before the Kansas Legislature gaveled in for veto session. The meeting included Johnson County Democrats and a handful of progressive Republicans, though all lawmakers from Johnson County were invited to attend.

“We’re not constitutionally obligated to fund our roads; we’re constitutionally obligated to fund our schools,” he said.

Members of the Johnson County delegation discussed an $80 million flaw in a school funding bill legislators adopted in the waning hours of the regular session a few weeks ago.

Members of the Johnson County delegation discussed an $80 million flaw in a school funding bill legislators adopted in the waning hours of the regular session a few weeks ago. The bill sought to add $525 million in new funding for schools over the next five years, but an error in wording made the legislation’s final tally $80 million less than intended. In the meantime, the appropriations committee added new spending to a budget bill that lawmakers are likely to consider as early as Friday.

Interim superintendent of the Shawnee Mission School DIstrict, Kenny Southwick set Johnson County legislators urging them to support fixing the $80 million legislative glitch. He warns that the legislation would eliminate $2 million from the SMSD budget.

“This is very difficult to explain to our community when $500 million is being restored in state aid across the state over the next five years,” the letter reads.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, called the meeting, hoping to inform the Johnson County delegation about options for fixing the school financing bill.

“This is a critical, critical thing to fix for us,” she said.

Several proposals exist to restore the $80 million in funding to the formula lawmakers passed in the waning minutes of the regular session on April 7, but there are no guarantees any of the propositions will earn the 63-votes necessary for passage in the Kansas House.

The underlying legislation passed with exactly the 63-votes required, and at least one legislator who voted in favor of the $525 million school funding bill says he won’t vote for any of the proposed fixes.

Rep. Leo Delperdang, a Wichita Republican, says he was a reluctant vote on the original legislation. He voted for it, because he worried a bill that included even more spending might be considered if the $525 million financing scheme failed.

“I’m not sure if it was the right thing to do or not,” Delperdang now says.

As he cast his vote, members of the largest teacher’s union in the state lined the hallways of the Capitol. Three of them approached him after the vote. They called him a “son of a bitch” despite his vote in favor of the legislation they supported.

“Those are the people teaching our children,” he says. “That was after I tried being part of the solution.”

In the Johnson County meeting, most lawmakers appeared to agree that even with the $80 million added back into the funding formula, the Kansas Supreme Court may still reject it.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled the existing school funding formula unconstitutional. Justices gave lawmakers an April 30 deadline to craft a new formula that the Court will review.

Rep. Brett Parker, an Overland Park Democrat, told members of the Johnson County delegation that as lawmakers work on a technical fix, he intends to offer amendments that add even more funding to schools. The goal, he said, is a formula the Court will rule constitutional. He believes the Court is likely to reject the current $525 million proposal.

“The Court is going to say we’re going to have to fund something, whether we make that decision now without a special session or in July with a special session,” he said.


Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said the money isn’t available to fund Parker’s idea, though she agreed the $525 million spending plan might not be enough to appease the Court. She recommended lawmakers work on creating a financing mechanism the Court will accept. Then, she warned, lawmakers may still be required to return to Topeka for a special session to add more money.

“We can send a bill that maybe doesn’t have the right amount of money,” Rooker said. “While we come back to that special session, schools could still remain open.”

The Court didn’t threaten to close schools in its latest decision, but they’ve made that threat in previous school funding cases. A state statute prohibits the Supreme Court from closing schools, but the law has never been tested.

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