Kansas school funding plan aimed at ending budget surprises
Topeka Top Republican officials in Kansas who hope to eliminate a budget deficit while sustaining personal income tax cuts are working on a plan to overhaul the state's system for funding public schools in a way that would prevent unanticipated demands for new spending.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is calling on the GOP-dominated Legislature to junk the state's current formula for distributing $3.6 billion in aid to school districts. He's proposed distributing most of the money to districts in "block grants" that would remain stable while lawmakers were drafting a new formula.
The chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees said they expect to have a bill drafted by the end of this week to incorporate Brownback's ideas. Republican Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., of Olathe, and GOP Sen. Ty Masterson, of Andover, said the measure would bring predictability to state and school district budgets.
"It creates a stable environment," Masterson said.
Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said such predictability would hurt school districts that have rising costs or growing student bodies.
"If the philosophy is just sort of freezing things in place for two years, you are not allowing districts to adjust for changing circumstances," Tallman said.
The debate is occurring in the broader context of budget problems that arose after lawmakers aggressively cut personal income taxes at Brownback's urging in 2012 and 2013 in a bid to stimulate the economy.
Kansas now faces a projected shortfall of nearly $600 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Yet Brownback hopes to retain a 29 percent drop in the top income tax rate and an exemption altogether for 281,000 business owners and 53,000 farmers.
Brownback and other GOP conservatives acquiesced last year to a big increase in aid to poor school districts when the Kansas Supreme Court ordered it to do so in response to a lawsuit filed in 2010 by parents and districts. But after making the commitment, top Republicans received what they've described as a frustrating surprise — a price tag that was $64 million higher than they expected.
The current funding formula bases aid on the number of students in each district. It also puts the state on the hook when more students than expected enroll or a higher-than-anticipated percentage of them are needy — but also when districts buy new equipment or supplement their state dollars with local property taxes.
"Everybody around here, including myself, said, 'Hey, wait a minute,'" Brownback said during an interview.
He added about the current formula, "It's very hard to understand, and it generally doesn't get the money where lawmakers want it to go."
Brownback last month announced plans to trim $28 million from public schools' aid at the end of this week to help balance the budget. Even with that move, total state aid — at almost $3.7 billion, excluding contributions for teacher pensions — would be $181 million, or 5.2 percent, higher than during the 2013-14 school year.
His plan for grants would freeze the aid at $3.6 billion for each of the next two school years, roughly the level that GOP legislators thought they were promising last year.
Masterson described the proposal as preventing financial harm to school districts while lawmakers write a new funding formula, but educators and Democrats see it as cutting funding.
Masterson and Ryckman said the bill they're drafting will provide the grants and keep districts' local property taxes at current levels, and will give districts more flexibility in using reserve funds.
"It also helps with the state budget process," Ryckman said.
But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, noted that in the past, when lawmakers discussed rewriting the school funding formula, they expected to provide a big increase in aid to school districts — to prevent creating losers from a shift in dollars.
"It doesn't sound like to me that they're willing to put any money up front," Hensley said of Republicans.