Archive for Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Wilk predicts compromise on school funding

Three plans under construction as state Legislature works to comply with court order

February 23, 2005

Three plans are on the table.

But state Rep. Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing, thinks that ultimately, a combination of the three will be the state's answer to the school finance debate.

A Kansas Supreme Court mandate has given the Legislature until April 12 to come up with a way to adequately fund K-12 education. Plans grabbing attention include a House plan, a Senate plan and a Wilk-Jordan "Investment in Excellence" plan, developed by Wilk and Sen. Nick Jordan, R-Shawnee.

One of the basic differences centers on how much money would go into school funding.

"The Senate plan puts in about $145 million the first year, the Wilk-Jordan plan $111 million, and the House proposal at this point is $65 million, but they're going to be putting more money in it, I think it's going to be about $100 million," Wilk said Monday.

There are pros and cons to every plan, Wilk said.

"This is the time where we get all the ideas on the table and everybody then competes for their ideas," said Wilk, whose district includes Tonganoxie. "I think you'll see a menu type thing where you'll start picking and choosing and you'll put together a hybrid -- that's how the legislative process works."

Though sold on the plan he helped create, Wilk said he's flexible.

"I'm willing to compete for ideas, and I'm willing to compromise," Wilk said. "I'm not, nor is Senator Jordan, saying we have the perfect plan. We think we've created a platform to advance the dialogue for the debate."

Local outlook

Tonganoxie school Superintendent Richard Erickson said he's leaning in favor of the Senate's plan.

"From what I know, the Senate bill looks to be the closest in meeting the Supreme Court's mandate," Erickson said. "I really believe the Senate plan would help education funding here for the next three-plus years. Of the three plans, that certainly looks to be the strongest plan."

One strong point in the Senate's plan, Erickson said, is its support of vocational education programs.

The Senate plan would phase in over three years a $445 million increase in education spending a year. The plan originally was set at a $415 million increase, but later the committee added $30 million for vocational education.

Erickson said, regarding the funding for vocational education, that the Senate plan is much more generous than that offered by the House.

"I'm concerned about the House plan," Erickson said. "My understanding is that it does withdraw the vocational funding that we receive."

In Tonganoxie, when high school students attend vocational education programs, the school district pays their tuition, Erickson said.

During the 2003-2004 school year, the district spent $59,945 for vocational education tuition. For this school year, Erickson said, the district will spend about $126,827 on vocational education. He attributed the increase to the fact that about twice the number of students are enrolled in vocational courses this year.

During the fall semester of this year, about 28 students were enrolled in vocational education programs, and 21 are enrolled for the spring semester.

Another bonus of the Senate's plan, Erickson said, regards the local option budget, a tax levied locally, solely for schools. Currently, state law allows districts to levy up to 25 percent of the district's general fund budget. The Senate's plan would increase that amount to 30 percent, and it would include a state match.

Currently, Erickson said, for every dollar raised by the LOB, local taxpayers pay 61 cents and the state pays 39 cents.

The House plan would allow the LOB to increase from 25 to 30 percent, Erickson said.

"But there wasn't any state match with that," Erickson said. "I would hope that if the Legislature allows the cap to be raised on the LOB that they would apply the state match."

The Senate's plan also allows for an increase in special education costs, raising the state's share from about 80 percent to about 90 percent, Erickson said.

Wait and see

Bob DeHoff, who has served as a school board member for eight years and is running for re-election, tries to keep up with state legislation.

"So far they (the three plans) all help, but they do not solve the problem with funding for K-12," DeHoff said.

There's a lot more work to be done, he added, saying he has no idea which plan, or parts of various plans, will end up as the state's educational funding plan.

"It's too hard to say right now," DeHoff said. "I'll give you a better answer on April 13, but right now, I don't think the plans that are up there would satisfy the court -- that's just my opinion, but they have a little over a month yet to get going."

DeHoff said if it came to cutting programs that school districts aren't required to pay for, or raising taxes, he'd prefer that the programs get cut.

"But at the same time, those are hard decisions for them," DeHoff said. "I'm glad I'm not in their spot."

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