On Monday, the Kansas Supreme Court issued a ruling that effectively said the state’s public schools could open in the fall. Yet the same decision left local district officials on Tuesday and beyond with continued, long-term uncertainty.
The high court’s decision could lead to continued fighting over school funding and the topic will likely serve as political fodder in state elections.
“To me, it’s no different than where we were six months ago,” said Justin Henry, the superintendent at Goddard Public Schools. “If anything, it gives you a chance to hit pause and maybe restart.”
The long wait for the court’s decision — it said the state still needs to send more money to local districts, but has a year to come up with a fresh plan — also caused districts to hold off on some financial decisions until after Monday’s ruling. That included union contract negotiations. Now those districts have much less time to plan a budget.
“In the perfect world, you would want to have your contract settled with your teaching staff before they leave in May and that would allow you the opportunity to plan the remainder of your budget throughout the summer,” Henry said. “It’s almost impossible to present and ratify a contract when there’s so much uncertainty until you get to the end of June.”
Other districts started planning their budgets at the end of the school year, assuming the Legislature’s funding plan would remain intact.
“You have to move forward with your planning, so we do that based on the resources we had,” said David Smith, the chief of public affairs at the Kansas City, Kansas, school district. “It’s just a realization that things may change, you just go with the resources that you have.”
Most school districts expressed support for the court’s decision and the Legislature’s efforts in the last session to raise school funding. They were also eager to continue the push for more money.
There was the possibility that the court's decision could have forced a special legislative session if the court found the state’s school funding plan fell short of a constitutional mandate. While that was the court’s judgement — saying the legislature failed to account for inflation when calculating the plan to increase the annual school funding budget by over a half billion in five years — the court ruled that the Legislature would have another year to get the amount right.
The ruling removed the possibility of imminent school closures. But school districts still face uncertainty about the future of school funding. Kansas Secretary of State and Republican candidate for governor Kris Kobach wrote on twitter that the state needs a constitutional amendment to take the school funding issue out of the court’s hands.
Uncertainty about the future of state funding beyond the approaching school year is causing trepidation for school officials looking to make long-term plans.
Chad Higgins, the superintendent for the Maize Unified School district northwest of Wichita, said he has more confidence in his district’s finances than he has had in years. But the looming school funding questions cool that enthusiasm.
“We can grow some things, but to create significantly new programs that will be beneficial to students that are also going to be expensive — I think we’re going to be reluctant to do that just yet,” Higgins said.
Stephan Bisaha reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @SteveBisaha.
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