Shawnee Mission parents’ lawsuit on new appeal; result could alter school funding

The lawsuit that emerged from the group that organized to "Save Mission Valley" in 2010 is now on appeal.
The lawsuit that emerged from the group that organized to “Save Mission Valley” in 2010 is on appeal.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruling in the Gannon case over adequacy of school finance is not the only lawsuit that still has the potential to dramatically change how much money will be available to local schools. While Gannon garnered most of the attention, a lawsuit by a group of Shawnee Mission parents is still working its way through the federal court system more than three years after it was filed. A new appeal was recently filed with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and is awaiting a hearing.

The plaintiffs, many of whose children attended the now-closed Mission Valley Middle School in Prairie Village, are challenging the cap that prevents local school districts from raising unlimited local funds to support schools. The appeal argues that the state’s funding formula with its cap on the local option budget results in unequal funding for school districts like Shawnee Mission. The inability to address the unequal funding by voting for more local school taxes violates the parents’ First Amendment free speech rights, the suit contends, as well as other Constitutional rights.

The harm that results from the underfunding includes larger class sizes, closure of neighborhood schools, loss of property values, loss of teachers and foreign language programs. The school district has closed a number of schools in recent years and just this week was grappling with complaints about class sizes in the schools.

Attorney Tristan Duncan, who is handling the case pro bono (one parent has donated money against expenses) and is herself Shawnee Mission parent, says, “the actual facts are that Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley are cash poor.” Both of those districts filed amicus briefs in support of the appeal in April. The appeal shows that Shawnee Mission receives significantly less than the average total state aid per pupil, despite its relatively high property wealth. Duncan also has enlisted the help of Harvard’s Laurence Tribe in the case.

The original suit was filed in December 2010 and the district court dismissed the claims for lack of standing in March 2011. On appeal that was reversed and sent back to the district court. In October, the district court rejected the claims that were based on fundamental rights and that ruling is now being appealed. Now, the appeal awaits the state’s response which is due June 4 and then a date for oral arguments. If the appeal is denied, Duncan says, they will seek a review at the Supreme Court. Among the remedies available to the appeals court is an order to completely void the local option budget cap and allow schools to raise unlimited local funds.

The appeal not only brings into play the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on spending caps and political speech, it adds a twist: a supporting quote from the late Kurt Vonnegut. The author wrote a letter to the Lawrence Journal-World in May 2005 commenting on a reference to his story, Harrison Bergeron. “(The spending cap) is as preposterous to me as any lampoon I ever wrote. My story mocks the idea of legally eliminating envy by outlawing excellence, which is precisely what the legislature means to do in the public schools, by putting a cap on local spending on them.”