What You Need To Know About A Possible Public Education Shutdown In Kansas

May 31, 2016

It could be a busy June under the Kansas Capitol dome.
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Now that the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the Legislature failed to fix inequity, school districts must seriously plan for a possible shut down on June 30.

Here's some questions school officials and parents may be asking.

Are the schools really going to close on June 30?

We're as close as we've come since May 11, 2004 when Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock ordered schools closed five years after a case called Montoy v. State of Kansas was filed. Bullock ruled in the case that the Legislature failed to "equitably distribute resources" and "provide adequate total resources."

About a week later the state Supreme Court stayed the order, lawmakers found more money and schools never shut their doors.

Just like in 2004, the courts and Legislature are eyeball-to-eyeball. But this time it's the high court that's threatening to close the schools. Will lawmakers respond with a plan that fixes equity in time? Many lawmakers believe they will, but some conservatives want to call the Supreme Court's bluff. But most believe the justices are serious about closing public schools.

So the Supreme Court has said schools simply couldn't operate?

Not exactly. The Court has ruled the current funding scheme unconstitutional and that schools could not spend or raise money in the coming fiscal year (which starts July 1) under an unconstitutional system. Educators aren't sure whether that means districts might be able to spend money they already have in the bank and, if they could, what they could spend it on. Could they continue to pay the person who writes checks to vendors? Could they pay utility bills? Cut the grass? School districts are hoping for that kind of direction from the justices should the Legislature fail to fix equity.

Is closing schools on June 30 carved in stone?

No. The Supreme Court could craft another remedy, or if the Legislature is making progress towards a fix, the justices could extend the deadline.

The Court could also just let the remedy crafted by the three-judge Shawnee County panel take effect. (You can read details here about that ruling almost exactly a year ago.)

Here's what's certain, though: Most bills when passed are presumed to be constitutional until a court rules otherwise. That's not the case here. The Legislature will have to prove its solution passes constitutional muster.

How's the Legislature going to handle this?

Lawmakers now have 30 days to come up with a solution and currently there's no new plan on the table. Presumably, there would have to be hearings in both the House and the Senate and any differences would have to ironed out in a conference committee. The solution will come from legislative leadership; a handful of lawmakers including the House Speaker, Senate President, House Appropriations chair and Senate Ways and Means chair. These are all conservatives with no love for the Supreme Court.

One other political note: In Kansas, candidates cannot raise certain campaign money while the Legislature is meeting. Money from individual contributors is kosher. But money from businesses and political action committees is not. If lawmakers are called into special session (and that's the betting right now), not only will that cut into campaigning but also into fundraising.

Most lawmakers do not want to campaign for re-election having to justify why they couldn't find a way to keep schools open.

How big a deal is closing schools in the summer?

It's not summer school that is the biggest worry. Most districts around here end summer classes by June 30. But many districts continue to feed poorer kids during the summer and continue to offer special education services. Some driver education programs stretch into July.

Summer is also a time districts hire teachers and other staff. No human resources operation means no hiring.

Districts do lots of construction and renovation projects in the summer. Olathe is building a new high school but because that's being paid for with bond money, officials there say the work would continue even if schools close. However, Kansas City, Kansas, pays for these kinds of projects with reserve funds so that might become an issue.

How much do schools spend in Kansas?

If schools can't spend money the state economy could take a pretty big hit. School districts spend $3 billion a year, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards. Public education represents 67,000 full-time jobs, that's 5 percent of the total non-farm payroll in the state. They buy everything from apples to asphalt.

And if people aren't working, they're not having taxes withheld from their paychecks, and they might be eligible for unemployment benefits. In addition, if schools are closed there's some question whether employees would continue to receive their health care and whether they could even collect the salary lost during a shutdown.

Can't Kansas just see how other states have dealt with a public education shutdown?

No. Best anyone can tell, this has never come up in another state. Some states, like Pennsylvania and Minnesota, allow teachers to strike so an individual district may be closed. But a statewide shutdown would be a unique situation.

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