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Cost Of School Finance Lawsuits In Kansas Runs Into Millions Of Dollars

Kansas Supreme Court

While public schools in Kansas deal with frozen budgets and lawmakers prepare for another session dominated by fights over school funding, there is a small group of people profiting: lawyers representing the state and school districts in the case now before thes Kansas Supreme Court.

The Gannon case was filed in 2010 and since then both sides have incurred a total of more than $5.5 million in attorney fees, as well as travel, expert witness and lobbying costs.

“If you want to advance your constitutional rights through the court system, lawyers are the way you have to do it," says attorney John Robb from Newton, a member of the legal team suing the state for more school funding.

The cost of pursuing these constitutional rights has cost school districts a bundle. Since the Gannon case was filed, the 43 school districts involved have paid $3,536,734 in legal fees to Robb and his partner, attorney Alan Rupe from Wichita. The bills are paid by the group Schools For Fair Funding, with larger districts, like Kansas City, Kansas, paying a bigger chunk.

In addition to attorney fees, the districts have paid $645,431 for lobbying, media consulting and expert witnesses, according to Schools For Fair Funding. The school districts' total since Gannon was filed: $4,182,165.

Robb says he thought the whole school finance issue was over in 2001 when the Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to put another $755 million over three years into public education. That was a case called Montoy. But as soon as that case was finished, lawmakers took back $511 million.

“So I don’t know that it’s the lawyers pushing this as much as the Legislatures breaking its promises every time they turn around,” Robb says .

Despite the hefty legal bill, Robb claims all this litigation has resulted in an extra $617 million a year for Kansas schools.

The state's bill is a lot less. The attorney general's office says it has spent $1,387,034 on outside legal fees with the Wichita law firm of Hite, Fanning and Honeyman.

"The attorney general's office is using a combination of staff counsel and contract counsel to defend the state in this large case," state Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a statement.

Most of the money was spent on attorney's fees, $1,233,811. Expenses such as travel and hotels have totaled $95,132. Expert witnesses have cost the state $58,090.

"Plaintiffs have requested relief that if granted would be in excess of $1 billion of additional funding,"  Schmidt said. "We are making sure the state’s defense is complete and robust."

The cost for both sides will go up. Bills for oral arguments before the Supreme Court onNov. 6have not come in yet. Plus there are more briefs and oral arguments at least into next spring as the two sides battle over whether Kansas children are getting an adequate education with the current funding.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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