Topeka Newspaper Sues to Obtain School Coalition’s Records

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A coalition of school districts funding a successful lawsuit against the state over education spending now faces a lawsuit from a newspaper that wants access to the group’s financial records.

The Topeka Capital-Journal argues that Schools for Fair Funding Inc. falls under the Kansas Open Records Act because it is supported by taxpayer dollars contributed by its 18 member districts. The group’s attorney argues it is a private entity providing services to districts.

Mike Merriam, the newspaper’s attorney, said Wednesday that he has mailed the lawsuit to Ellis County District Court. The Hays school district is part of the group, and its records are there.

“I think they’re playing hide-and-seek with the money,” Merriam said in a story the Capital-Journal published about the lawsuit. “What the newspaper and public needs to know is how the school districts are spending money through this corporation.”

Some legislators have grumbled for years about school districts using taxpayer dollars to lobby for additional funds.

Backed by Schools for Fair Funding, parents and administrators in Dodge City and Salina sued the state in 1999. Last year, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state had failed to fulfill a duty under the state constitution to fund a suitable education for every child, resulting in legislators promising $831 million in increases, phased in over four years.

Alan Rupe, the attorney for the coalition of school districts, said Schools for Fair Funding has offered to disclose what it has received from school districts this year. But, he said, it won’t release spending data, arguing the public money it receives becomes private upon receipt. He likened the group to the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Last year, the Kansas Legislative Research Department surveyed districts and reported they had paid the group nearly $2.1 million since the lawsuit was filed. The total likely has increased this year.

“School finance remains a volatile issue, one we believe can best be served by full disclosure from all parties involved, particularly when they involve public schools and public funds,” said Pete Goering, the newspaper’s executive editor.

“The Capital-Journal is taking this action reluctantly but in the sincere belief the public deserves a full and open accounting of how, and how much, taxpayer money has been and is being spent,” he added.

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