Capitol Update: Rooker says legislature has ‘done everything possible to avoid compliance’ with school funding rulings, but ‘end of this road is fast approaching’

Rep. Melissa Rooker.
Rep. Melissa Rooker.

The 2016 legislative session is under way in Topeka, and throughout the session we’ll be bringing you a weekly update from one of northeast Johnson County’s elected officials — Rep. Barbara Bollier, Rep. Stephanie Clayton, Rep. Jarrod Ousley, Rep. Melissa Rooker and Sen. Kay Wolf — about what they’re working on in Topeka. Rep. Rooker submits this week’s update:

Last week marked the halfway point in the 2016 legislative session, known as “turnaround.” We adjourned for a brief break to allow legislative staff time to process the paperwork necessary to send our House bills to the Senate and vice versa. We return to work on Wednesday to consider the bills sent to us by the Senate and remaining legislation that is exempt from deadlines.

Currently, the remainder of the session is scheduled as follows:

  • Wednesday, March 2: Session Resumes
  • Friday, March 18: Last day for non-exempt committees to meet
  • Monday, March 21: On the floor all day; Last day for non-exempt bills in either house
  • Wednesday, March 23: Last day for conference committees to agree
  • Friday, March 25: Drop dead day, first adjournment
  • Wednesday, April 27: Veto session begins
  • Wednesday, May 18: Day 90

When we return for the second half of session, we are scheduled to review the efficiency study in more depth, and hopefully address the Gannon school finance ruling on equity.

The ruling requires the legislature to provide a remedy for the constitutional deficiency of funding for equalization aid by June 30 or they will enjoin funding, which will potentially close schools. Our district has expressed alarm that this could cost us funding. I saw the comments made last week that the Shawnee Mission School District anticipates a loss of $8 million in funding and have been attempting to follow up on that claim.

According to the Kansas Department of Education, if we simply reverted to the old funding formula to calculate equalization aid, we lose nothing for capital outlay equalization because we did not receive any in the first place. However, we stand to lose about $3 million in “supplemental state aid,” otherwise known as the local option budget (LOB). Why? The old formula provided LOB equalization aid based on the total assessed value per pupil and those values have fallen statewide due to the drop in oil and gas prices. The SMSD does not usually qualify for this equalization but due to a spike in prices the year school funding was frozen by the block grants, we qualified. Recalculating with the old formula at today’s prices will mean we no longer qualify for aid. We are not alone in this predicament statewide.

This does not address the reason our district fears additional lost funding in the neighborhood of $5 million. The best explanation I have heard from district officials is their concern that our ability to levy LOB of 33 percent will be rolled back to 31 percent. While I do not doubt that there are lawmakers who would like to make that reduction a reality, the truth of the matter is that the 33 percent cap existed in the old formula and was ratified with a public vote. The only way to lose that authority is legislative change, not compliance with the Gannon decision.

The inherent danger in freezing funding was one of the reasons I voted against SB 7, the Block Grant bill, in the first place. The old formula was a living mechanism that incorporated changes from one year to the next in a way that eased their impact on districts all around the state. The old formula would have brought additional funds for the 231 students who are new to our district this year and included some safeguards to avoid wild fluctuations of funding from one year to the next.

I have watched with fascination as elected officials and other members of the administration threaten a showdown with the court. I disagree with the rhetoric that calls the decision judicial activism. The court is charged with determining if legislation we pass meets the constitutional standard whenever those affected by our laws bring suit. We have had years of litigation in Gannon and at each level, the court has consistently ruled against the state. The legislature has done everything possible to avoid compliance with these findings, however the end of this legal road is fast approaching.

This argument is being framed as an either/or proposition – either we defy the court by refusing to comply, or we roll back to the old formula and create a new list of winners and losers statewide. I prefer to create a third option. It is within our power to craft a solution that harms no one and complies with our constitutional responsibility.

I will be part of a panel discussion regarding public education this Tuesday night at Colonial Church, 7039 Mission Road, from 7-8:30 p.m. sponsored by the Mainstream Coalition. I do hope you can attend.