Kansas school aid debate raises tough issues for lawmakers
Under a court order to revamp the state's education funding formula, Kansas legislators are raising issues they normally don't discuss, such as the possibility of increasing property taxes statewide and consolidating local school districts.
Their willingness to ponder such topics came as the Senate prepared to debate a bill Monday that would redistribute about $38 million in education funds for the 2016-17 school year. The measure is designed to meet a Kansas Supreme Court order last month to increase poor districts' aid, but it would do so without boosting overall spending while the state struggles to balance its budget.
"The Legislature is, I think, to some extent, feeling backed into a corner," said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. "It puts things on the table that normally would not be on the table."
Here is a look at school funding developments.
Senate school funding plan
The school funding bill before the Senate is a response to the Supreme Court's ruling that a 2015 law for distributing more than $4 billion a year in aid to the state's 286 school districts denies poorer ones their fair share.
The court gave lawmakers until June 30 to fix the problem and threatened to start closing schools statewide after that if legislators didn't meet the deadline.
The plan was drafted by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican. It increases state aid for 100 school districts, while reducing it for 186.
Local property taxes
House Appropriations Committee members objected last week to shifting funds among districts because increasing aid to poor districts would allow them to decrease local property tax levies, while others losing money could be forced to increase their levies to avoid cutting programs.
Kansas imposes a statewide levy of $20 on each $1,000 of a property's tax-assessed value to help finance schools, and local districts can impose additional taxes.
Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican, noted that some districts aren't imposing the maximum and asked whether the state ought to force them to increase their local levies.
The statewide levy for schools once was $35 per $1,000 of a property's value, but lawmakers lowered it in 1998 to offer property tax relief.
Legislators also have struggled with redistributing education dollars because school districts' wealth would be measured by their average total property values per student. The figures can fluctuate year to year.
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, has suggested that the annual changes would be less volatile if the state had fewer but larger school districts. Of the 286 districts, 131 have fewer than 500 students, according to state figures.
A bill that would reduce the number of districts to 132 is before the House Education Committee, which doesn't plan to vote on it. A round of forced district mergers in the 1960s left bitter feelings that still make legislators reluctant to discuss consolidation.
But the issue also isn't disappearing.
"People are keeping an open mind as we look at the best solutions for funding public schools," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican.
Local control of schools
Some Republican legislators are frustrated because they don't believe the state has enough control over how education dollars are spent. Lawmakers are considering proposals to give the state more oversight of construction projects and create a single health insurance plan for school employees.
The Supreme Court has said providing adequate funding for schools is the state's responsibility, yet day-to-day decisions are left to local school boards and superintendents.
"As long as we have local control, we will always have a problem," said House Education Committee Chairman Ron Highland, a Wamego Republican.
The Supreme Court's decision came in a lawsuit that the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts first filed in 2010.
Toby Crouse, an Overland Park attorney hired by legislative leaders to defend lawmakers in the lawsuit, questioned members of their staff Monday during a committee meeting to compile evidence for future Supreme Court proceedings.