Top Republican Says Kansas School Funding Decision Did Not Order More Funds

By John Celock

The former speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives, who now heads the state’s Chamber of Commerce, told a tea party radio show Monday morning that Friday’s state Supreme Court school finance decision does not necessarily mean more funds for the state schools.

Former state House Speaker Mike O’Neal (R-Hutchison) told The Joseph Ashby Show on KQAM radio in Wichita Monday that the decision could mean more money for the schools but not necessarily. O’Neal was discussing a Friday ruling where the Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature has until July 1 to address equity issues in school district funding based on previous legislative decisions on funding the state’s capital contribution to local school districts and the state’s general supplemental state aid. Advocates – along with the deputy state education commissioner – said that this would mean an additional $129 million state contribution to schools.

“The court did not say, I’ve been annoyed frankly by a lot of the headlines, that the court orders more funds,” O’Neal said on the Ashby Show. “No where in that decision did the court say this would require more money. There is nothing in that order says that they must.”

The court ruling did not specify a specific number for equity on the two issues but set a July 1 deadline for lawmakers to respond to the equity issues in the Gannon v. State of Kansas lawsuit. The Supreme Court ruled that the District Court has to oversee the Legislature’s final decision and could take over lawmakers do not respond by July 1. The decision is the latest in the ongoing struggle over school finance in the state.

Advocates have said the cost to the state would be $129 million. However, O’Neal is not alone in his thinking that there would not be such a cost. State Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R) said during a press conference Friday afternoon that $129 million was “not a solid number.”

Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and state legislative leaders used the same press conference to say they would address “the allocation issue” from the court but did not specify a path forward.

O’Neal used most of his appearance on the Ashby Show to explain the history of the case and explain the results of the ruling. O’Neal noted one issue has been the state allowing local school districts to set their local budget and local tax rate based on previous state aid numbers and not current ones. He said this has allowed local district to set their own budget numbers. He said the court decision will have lawmakers address the issue.

O’Neal did praise the court’s ruling by noting that the Supreme Court said that the adequacy of public school funding in Kansas can not be determined by a number of factors and not just state contributions. The ruling allows for pension funds, federal aid, local taxes and grants to be factored in to adequacy. He said this opens up the entire picture of school funding and not just the state contribution.

The court decision is causing concern among legislators, who have noted that they are being forced to potentially find $129 million. State Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report on Friday that he does not want to raise taxes to find the funds, saying that Brownback’s tax cuts are needed to grow the state’s economy. He said the other option is cuts to other programs, including transportation and higher education.

“Do I want to do that? No, but a court is ordering me to do that,” Claeys said Friday of potential transportation and higher education cuts.