TOPEKA -- A Kansas district judge on Tuesday ordered public schools to
close, beginning June 30, until the state's flawed school finance law
can be overhauled.
Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock, who had declared the school
finance law unconstitutional on Dec. 2, ordered the expenditure of
school dollars to be halted at the end of next month.
His order, unprecedented in Kansas, applies not only to state education
spending but also to additional property tax levies authorized by local
school boards and local sales tax money collected for education in
Johnson and Saline counties.
"This action by the court will terminate all spending functions under
the unconstitutional funding provisions, effectively putting our school
system on 'pause' until the unconstitutional funding defects are
remedied by the legislative and executive branches of our government,"
As news of the ruling spread in media reports, concerned parents called
schools to see if they would remain open, and worried school employees
asked if they would receive paychecks after June 30.
State and school district officials urged people not to panic,
predicting that the Kansas Supreme Court would delay implementation of
Attorney General Phill Kline called a news conference to announce that
he would ask the state Supreme Court today to put Bullock's order on
hold until the justices consider it.
Kline earlier appealed Bullock's original order, which had declared the
school finance law unconstitutional. That appeal, authorized by a
special law passed by the Legislature this year, is to be heard in
Kline was among those predicting that the Supreme Court would overturn
"Everybody needs to take a deep breath," he said. "There is a process,
and we are following this process."
Last December, in declaring the school finance law unconstitutional,
Bullock said it failed to distribute school aid equitably to students,
failed to spend enough to provide students a "suitable" education and
did not serve the needs of poor, minority, disabled and non-English
"The current funding scheme was found to be irrational; that is, those
schools with the children most expensive to educate receive the least,"
Bullock was critical of the Legislature for failing to deal with his
"In fact, rather than attack the problem, the Legislature chose instead
to attack the court."
Bullock had directed the Legislature and the governor to come up with a
constitutional school-aid plan by July 1. But lawmakers could not reach
agreement on one.
The judge said in his ruling that lawmakers running for re-election were
reluctant to raise taxes for schools. However, he also noted that over
the past 10 years the Legislature had cut taxes by nearly $7 billion.
As a result, he said, the school funding method is now unconstitutional,
in part because of inadequate funding. In last year's school-finance
trial, Bullock heard unchallenged testimony that the cost of providing a
suitable education for Kansas children is nearly $1 billion more than is
Johnson County educators, such as Shawnee Mission Superintendent
Marjorie Kaplan, saw another reason to be concerned Tuesday.
The judge's ruling said that local funding options, which are more
available to wealthy districts, shouldn't be allowed. Johnson County
schools receive crucial revenue from both a county sales tax and a
property tax levy.
"Our concern is the state has not proved to be reliable in providing
adequate funds," Kaplan said. "We're trying for an outstanding education."
The judge's order followed Saturday's adjournment of the Kansas
Legislature, after it failed repeatedly to provide additional money for
"Maybe it takes something like this to send a message to the Legislature
that it's time to act," said Richard Olmstead of Wichita, one of the
lawyers challenging the constitutionality of the school-aid law.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius issued a news release saying the situation might
have been avoided if the Legislature had done its job.
"It's truly unfortunate that Kansas schoolchildren, their parents and
teachers must now suffer the consequences of the Legislature's failure
to meet its constitutional responsibility," she said.
A plan offered by Sebelius also failed to remedy the constitutional
flaws Bullock had cited.
State lawmakers had varied reactions to Bullock's ruling.
"Why would he close the schools down immediately, except to punish
students and frighten parents?" asked Sen. Kay O'Connor, an Olathe
Republican and a critic of tax increases for schools. "This is just a
"I don't think the judge has any business telling the Legislature how to
Senate Vice President John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, was in the
forefront of efforts to provide additional money for schools.
"It kind of took my breath away," he said of Bullock's decision. "I am
offended by the cavalier manner in which the judge is attempting to
exert his influence. I don't think he is considering all the
ramifications of what he has ordered."
Vratil considers the school-aid formula flawed. But the decision from
Bullock, he said, may not foster change.
"For those legislators who have been supportive of public education, I
think he has damaged our efforts," Vratil said.
Senate President Dave Kerr, a Hutchinson Republican, labeled Bullock "an
activist judge" and said the judge cannot ignore the "fine education
results being purchased by our tax dollars."
John Martellaro of Lenexa, president of Kansas Families United for
Public Education and father of a teenager attending Shawnee Mission
Northwest High School, said the ruling wasn't a result of judicial
activism. Rather, he said, it's a result of inaction by the Legislature.
"I hope the reaction will be that the legislators will decide there is
too much at risk to play chicken, that they will buckle down and get
serious," he said.
A cause for worry
Local educators, while supporting rulings that might eventually result
in more money for schools, also said such a dramatic a ruling would
spawn criticism and worry.
"The initial information on the ruling has created a lot of anxiety
throughout the district, and I'm sure around the state," said Olathe
Superintendent Ron Wimmer.
The Blue Valley School District quickly placed a notice on its Web site
saying that it would be open as scheduled for the remainder of the
Olathe schools dispatched a letter to parents, pointing out that appeals
of the ruling would occur immediately. "We do not anticipate any
immediate change in operations during the time of the appeal," said the
Although hardly anyone thinks the court ruling will take effect on June
30, as of Tuesday, the ruling did stand, said Ray Daniels,
superintendent in Kansas City, Kan.
"The ramifications of it are just huge," he said. "You're talking about
people not getting paid, benefits not getting paid."
In some places, summer school extends past June 30. Some teachers and
other school workers are paid throughout the summer. School districts
aren't idle then; they buy supplies, such as textbooks; and they pay
contractors to repair buildings. They must pay utility bills and the
interest on bonds.
The Star's DeAnn Smith contributed to this report.
To reach John L. Petterson, who covers Kansas government and politics,
call 1-(785) 354-1388