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Kansas GOP Leader: Talk Of Defying Schools Ruling 'Serious'

Updated Wednesday, 1:56 p.m.: Lawmakers dropped their push to try to pass a new school funding fix before the end of the 2016 session.

Original story:

Many Republican legislators are serious about defying a recent Kansas Supreme Court order on education funding and ready to test whether the justices would not allow public schools to open for the new academic year, the Senate's majority leader said Tuesday.

Leaders of the Legislature's GOP supermajorities weren't sure whether they'd attempt to rewrite school finance laws Wednesday, when lawmakers were convening for a ceremony formally adjourning their annual session. If they didn't, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback would have to call a special session in June for lawmakers to consider additional fixes.

The court on Friday rejected some changes made earlier this year by the Republican legislators and said the education funding system remains unfair to poor districts. The court gave lawmakers until June 30 to address the remaining problems and or face the possibility that schools would remain closed.

"They've gone out of their way to pick a fight," Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce , a Nickerson Republican, told reporters. "It's gotten to a breaking point."

Asked about talk of defying the court's order, Bruce said, "It is serious."

The Supreme Court ruled in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita, and Kansas City, Kansas districts. John Robb , one of their attorneys, called such talk "tremendously irresponsible." "They're gambling with our kids," Robb said.

Senate President Susan Wagle , a Wichita Republican, initially said lawmakers aren't going to consider additional fixes this week because the state's attorneys have not had enough time to analyze the court's decision. She said in an emailed statement that she, Brownback and House Speaker Ray Merrick , a Stilwell Republican, had agreed not to tackle school finance issues Wednesday.

But top GOP legislators were not ruling out a debate Wednesday after emerging from a private meeting Tuesday afternoon with Brownback and Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

Asked whether lawmakers would debate a school funding bill, Merrick said, "I don't have the foggiest idea."

Wagle spokeswoman Paje Resner said the question of pursuing a new education funding bill still was being discussed Tuesday evening.

Robb said he's not concerned if legislators want more time to draft a response to the ruling and will have a special session.

"The important thing is that they get it done before the end of June," Robb said.

Public schools in Kansas have ended their 2015-16 year, but state Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis said some of them have summer school programs, and many provide school lunches to poor children in June and July.

The Supreme Court said that because flaws remain in how the state distributes more than $4 billion a year in aid to its 286 local school districts, the entire finance system still violates the state constitution . Without a valid system, the court said, schools "will be unable to operate."

Dennis said that the state would have to increase its aid between $38 million and $51 million during the 2016-17 school year to comply with the latest court order. The cost would depend upon whether lawmakers want to prevent wealthy districts from losing aid as the state helped poor ones, he said.

Bruce said part of GOP leaders' discussions with Brownback centered on "where does the money come from?" Brownback has said the state could be forced to cut higher education and Medicaid's health coverage for the needy, elderly and disabled.

The Supreme Court ruled in February that poor school districts weren't getting their fair share of the aid, violating the state constitution.

While legislators revised parts of Kansas' school funding formula, the changes resulted in no changes in aid for most school districts — and no overall increase in spending for the state. Lawmakers faced both a budget crunch and political pressure not to cut aid to wealthy districts to help poor ones.

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