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Local coverage of education issues, health care, and science and technology.

State, Local Officials React To New School Funding Bill

School-Bus.jpg
Alex Starr
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flickr Creative Commons

The back-and-forth discussion about school funding in the state of Kansas has been, without a doubt, confusing. Last week, Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill that lawmakers hope will fix a major problem in education financing. But how could that bill affect students in Wichita? And what does it mean for the future of education funding in Kansas?

Governor Brownback signed a school aid bill that aims to satisfy the state Supreme Court's ruling requiring legislators to fix equity issues in education financing. The bill is basically about property taxes across the state; wealthier districts are able to raise more money through property taxes to finance schools. Lawmakers hope this bill will help poor districts get more state dollars to close the spending gap between districts.

“It's a balancing act," says Diane Gjerstad, director of government relations for Wichita Public Schools. "It uses state dollars to balance out property taxes so that you don't have differences in educational outcomes due to the wealth of the school district.”

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Credit http://usd259.org/
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A district map of USD 259.

Gjerstad says that when the Kansas Supreme Court found the state’s block grant funding system for education unconstitutional, changes had to be made. Funding is determined using two formulas – one for a local option budget, or LOB, which pays mainly for day-to-day operations, and a separate formula to determine a capital outlay budget. That one is for buildings and equipment.

“They threw out the LOB formula, and they replaced it with the cheaper capital outlay formula so they wouldn't have to spend as much money,” Gjerstad says of the new funding formula.

The bill changes the way the state calculates equalization aid. Gjerstad says the whole idea of equity is that the state uses a formula that gives the most aid to districts that need money, and less to those that don’t. She says that for Wichita Public Schools, the bill doesn’t change or improve the budget circumstance--at all. In fact, the district will get less money than anticipated.

“We should have gotten $9.5 million: $5 million in property tax relief, $4.5 million for capital outlay," Gjerstad says. "And instead, we're getting zero. We're flat.”

In the meantime, the USD 259 is facing increasing costs for utilities, employee health care, transportation and labor. The bill simply shifted money around, a fact that state Rep. Jim Ward, a Democrat from Wichita, says does not solve the Supreme Courts ruling that education across the state must be equitable.

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Credit Kansas Legislature
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Kansas Rep. Jim Ward

“What this bill fails to understand is that there's a difference between what we spend in classrooms and what we spend on construction or repair," Ward says. "...We spent more, always have spent more on the classroom than we have in construction. What this bill does is say we're going to treat everything like construction, which reduces the amount of money available for the classroom significantly.”

And if districts want to spend more money or get more funding, Ward says the option is to raise local property taxes.

“And under this bill, if every school district across the state decided to use the tools available, it would be an $80 to 84 million property tax increase," he says. "That's bad, period. But it also locks in rich districts getting more educational opportunity for less tax dollars than poorest districts. That doesn't meet constitutional standards.”

Ward says the part that “locks in” rich districts getting more money is the fact that those districts have the ability to raise taxes, while in poorer districts that option is not as likely.

"Raising property taxes is very unpopular and unequitable because Planeview can't raise as much money as Tallgrass in property taxes," Ward says. "And that's what inequity means."

But one part of the bill, a hold harmless provision, is designed to remedy those kind of equity issues.

“And you know, that sounds great. 'Wow, that's that's good, you know, nobody's going to get hurt.' Only if you believe that wasn't already being harmed a week ago, under the old law, OK. And only if you think raising local property taxes to meet educational needs is the best way to fund schools," Ward says. "Those are the two things you have to believe if you think we're being held harmless. For Wichita, we're short $10 million, and I don't know anywhere in Wichita where we think property taxes are the best way to fund public schools.”

Ward says that now that Gov. Brownback has signed the bill, the next step is for the Kansas Supreme Court to review it and determine if it’s constitutional. The governor said the bill represents the collective judgment of 165 elected representatives. He described the bill as a delicate legislative compromise and asked the court to review it with "appropriate deference."

If the court finds the bill satisfactory, legislators can begin to take on school funding as a whole. If it doesn’t, the bill will be sent back for revisions. Lawmakers have until June 30 to fix funding or face school closures.

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Follow Abigail Wilson on Twitter @AbigailKMUW

 
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