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Sunday, July 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Court Revives Fight for Kansas School Funding

DENVER (CN) - Kansas students can challenge a state law that prohibits school districts from raising extra cash by levying higher taxes, the 10th Circuit ruled.

Backed by their parents, students from the Shawnee Mission Unified School District filed the original complaint against Gov. Sam Brownback and Commissioner of Education Diane Debacker, among others, over a provision of the School District Finance Quality and Performance Act that restricts school district fundraising. The students said such limits violate their 14th Amendment rights.

The law's Local Option Budget provision expressly "permits a district to raise extra money by levying additional property taxes," but there is a 31 percent expenditures cap on how much Kansas gives the district in financial aid, according to the federal appeals court.

Students say that cap has unfairly necessitated sweeping budget cuts at Shawnee Mission.

"According to appellants' complaint below, the LOB cap has caused SMSD to reduce its budget and reduce the educational services it provides," Judge David Ebel wrote for a three-member panel.

"SMSD has cut its budget by $20 million over a two-year span, including cutting nearly 100 teachers, and class sizes have increased," he added. "The LOB cap has also caused SMSD to announce and begin implementing the closure of certain schools in the district.

"Appellants asserted a fundamental liberty interest in directing and participating in the upbringing and education of their children; a fundamental property interest in spending their own money to improve public education in their district, thereby protecting their property values; and a First Amendment right to assemble, associate, and petition for improved public education through increased local taxation."

A federal judge had previously dismissed the complaint for lack of standing, but the 10th Circuit reversed last week.

"The District Court concluded that because the LOB cap was not severable from the rest of the act, a finding that the LOB cap was unconstitutional would result in the invalidation of the entire act," Ebel wrote.

"Further, because the district court concluded that Kansas law provided no independent taxing authority for school boards, a favorable decision for the plaintiffs would result in the SMSD school board being unable to levy any taxes at all."

The District Court reached these "premature" conclusions based on an "inaccurate characterization" of the nature of the students' injury, according to the appellate ruling.

"The injury appellants claim to suffer is not 'the inability of the district to raise unlimited funds through a local tax,' but the deprivation of equal protection, suffered personally by appellants, by virtue of the alleged 'intentional underfunding' of their school district, coupled with the LOB cap's statutory prohibition on even attempting to raise more money to compensate for this alleged underfunding," Ebel wrote.

"It is this alleged unequal treatment that constitutes the injury."

The allegations of civil rights violations establish standing, the court ruled.

It is also wrong to find that there is no redress for the students' injuries, the panel said, pointing to a number of viable scenarios for relief.

"Appellants could get meaningful relief under a variety of scenarios," Ebel wrote. "Most preferable to appellants would be an invalidation of the LOB cap coupled with a finding that the cap is severable.

"Appellants could also get relief through an injunction against the act as a whole, because it would redress appellants' alleged injury of discriminatory treatment. Or the district court could strike down the LOB cap and the act, but stay its order to give the Kansas Legislature time to respond."

Students can challenge the constitutionality of the LOB cap, "even if such a decision resulted in the wholesale invalidation of the act," according to the ruling.

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