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U.S. Supreme Court Won't Hear Shawnee Mission School Funding Case

Credit Patrick McKay / Flickr -- CC

The U.S. Supreme Court Monday refused to hear the appeal of a group of Shawnee Mission parents who want limits lifted on how much local school districts can raise in local taxes.

However, this is not the end of the court case.

The high court refused the case, called Petrella, without comment.

The parents sued the state five years ago arguing that if patrons want to tax themselves more to pay for schools, the state shouldn’t be allowed to stop them. Kansas law caps how much local school districts can spend in local property taxes.

“This case involves members of a community banding together to ask not what the State can do for them, but what they can do together to avert a school funding crisis,” the parents argue in their high court brief.

They lost at the trial court and in front of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In their Supreme Court appeal the parents tried to equate education with free speech and equal protection.

Through a complicated ruling from the appeals court, the case now goes back to the trial court for another hearing.

"The Supreme Court may have wanted us to exhaust our remedies in the District Court first," says Tristan Duncan who represents the parents.

Duncan says they will ask the trial court to evaluate their case under a different legal standard. "So there is reason for optimism going forward." 

But other lawyers involved in the case say this new standard is even more difficult to meet, so a win would be difficult at best.

The parents do have some high-powered legal talent: Kansas City's biggest law firm, Shook, Hardy & Bacon, has agreed to represent the parents essentially at no charge and Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, one of the nation's preeminent constitutional law scholars, is also on the case.

While the Shawnee Mission School District filed a friend of the court brief with the Tenth Circuit, the district chose not to intervene when the case was appealed up to the Supreme Court. 

This case should not be confused with the Gannon case now before the Kansas Supreme Court. Oral arguments on part of that case were heard last month and a ruling is expected around the time the legislative session ends next spring. The state high court is now studying briefs in a second, more complicated part of Gannon on whether the state is actually providing students with an adequate education.

Nothing will happen until the state Supreme Court acts, according to lawyers involved with the case.

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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