July 12, 2024

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SFFF diverts $8.4 million from classrooms to pay lawyers

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Kansas public school districts have paid more than $8.4 million in membership fees to Schools for Fair Funding (SFFF), an organization that is paying lawyers to sue the state for more funding.

Most recently, Alan Rupe, an attorney for SFFF, appeared before the Kansas Supreme Court to say the additional $90 million lawmakers agreed to funnel to schools this year to settle the Gannon lawsuit isn’t enough. Instead, Rupe asked the Court to give school districts another $270 million per year, in addition to the $1 billion in new state aid lawmakers intend to phase in through the 2023 school year.

The Court has yet to rule on the May 9 hearing, which will be the seventh ruling in the 2010 Gannon case. In the meantime, several public school districts continue to send annual membership fees to SFFF. This year, 37 schools paid $687,387 in dues to the litigious organization. Since 2005, as many as 72 school districts have paid dues to SFFF totaling more than $8.4 million in fees. That’s money that could have been directed to classrooms or to improve student achievement, says Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican.

“I think it’s important for as much money as possible to go toward helping kids,” she said. She chairs the Senate select committee on education finance. “I can think of so many different things I would like to see $8 million be spent on. Mental health, reading programs, you name it.”

Gov. Laura Kelly made increasing funding to public schools a top priority, but she line-item vetoed more than $1.5 million in funding for educational programs last week, saying she opposed that the funding was earmarked to be funneled through the Kansas Department of Education. In her veto statement, she encouraged districts to fund the programs she cut through increased state aid instead.

SFFF membership numbers fluctuate. They’re down from a high in 2010, the same year the group launched the Gannon lawsuit. Of the more than 280 school districts in Kansas, 72 paid membership dues to SFFF that year, providing more than $500,000 in fees to attorneys. By 2012, SFFF was collecting just shy of $1 million in funding per year from 53 school districts.

Annual membership dues are based on a district’s enrollment. Using funding that could have been used to increase teacher pay or for instruction, the Wichita School District has paid more than $2.5 million in SFFF dues to fund lawsuits since 2006, the year it joined. On average, the district has paid more than $178,000 each of the last 14 years. That’s the equivalent of hiring four, full-time teachers at a salary of $44,000 each year. The Kansas City, Kansas, School District has paid more than $1 million in annual dues to SFFF during its 13 years of membership. Smaller districts that only joined for a year or two paid significantly less to SFFF. For example, the Central Plains district paid $684 in 2010, the only year it belonged to SFFF.

The Attorney General’s office defended the state throughout the school financing lawsuits, and taxpayers footed that bill as well.

“Schools for Fair Funding is just half of the story. There were certainly funds spent with regards to both sides,” Baumgardner says. “The Attorney General’s office was extending manpower and also tax dollars to get us where we are right now.”

Kansas Supreme Court Justices are expected to issue a school finance ruling by a self-imposed deadline of June 30. Baumgardner hopes they’ll rule that lawmakers’ most recent attempt at funding schools is adequate.

“The ongoing drip, drip, drip of litigation costs money, and it takes time,” she says. “I think it’s pretty much work everyone down. We want to get back to the business of education our kids.”

SFFF dues 2005-23

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