Top Kansas Lawmaker Calls For Special Session To Fix School Funding Inequity

Jun 4, 2016

Rep. Ron Ryckman, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has called for a special legislative session to deal with a looming school shutdown.
Credit KCUR 89.3

For the first time, someone in leadership in the Kansas Legislature has called for a special session to craft a solution to school funding inequity that will satisfy the state Supreme Court and head off a possible shutdown of schools by month's end.

Rep. Ron Ryckman from Olathe, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, sent a letter addressed to "Colleagues" suggesting now is the time to act.

"I've come to the conclusion that a Special Session would not only keep the Courts from overreaching and closing our schools, but it would also allow the Legislature to address, perhaps finally and forever, the constitutional crisis that never-ending litigation creates," Ryckman said in the letter.

So far Gov. Sam Brownback has not even hinted at a special session. But in an interview, Ryckman says Brownback would call a special session if he had assurances that lawmakers would only tackle the issue of inequitable funding between rich and poor districts.

“He would like to see the members of both the House and the Senate on the same page and wanting to come back and get this behind us,” Ryckman says.

The last statement from the governor's office had an uncompromising tone. Brownback said he would "respond aggressively and appropriately to any action taken by the Kansas Supreme Court to close our schools."

The governor's top spokesperson, Eileen Hawley, responded with much the same statement when asked about the Ryckman letter.

One of Ryckman's colleagues, Rep. Barbara Bollier, a moderate Republican from Mission Hills, says she's glad someone in leadership wants a special session. But she says Ryckman's letter offers no plan. "You don't lead people without a plan," she says.

Bollier says lawmakers should move forward on their own with a special session. That's a high bar to get over. It would take a two-thirds majority in each chamber for that to happen.

Late Saturday afternoon house Democrats began circulating a petition to gather the needed signatures. The Legislature's two top Democrats sent a letter to Brownback saying that by not calling a special session he is "content to cause a constitutional crisis over our most important obligation - to fund our children's education."

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley from Topeka and house Minority Leader Tom Burroughs from Kansas City posted the letter on Twitter.

Still many conservatives are ready for a fight with the high court. They argue that complying with an order to close schools would encourage what Sen. Jeff Melcher of Leawood called "bad behavior" by the justices.

Ryckman doesn't see it that way but he also took his shots the the justices. “Our Supreme Court has ruled our law unconstitutional. That is their role. I believe they used unsound judgment. I believe it was politically motivated. But they’re the ones in robes and they ruled the law unconstitutional.”

In the end, Ryckman predicts school districts will operate after June 30.

Sam Zeff  covers education for KCUR and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.