As support withers for Gov. Sam Brownback’s school finance reform plan, the state Senate today will take up a new idea for injecting more money into schools.
The Senate Education Committee will set aside Brownback’s plan as it considers an alternative proposal that keeps the current formula intact but calls for pumping $100 million into schools in the next two years.
The plan, developed by a bi-partisan group of three senators on the committee, also would give school districts some limited authority to raise property taxes.
The new Senate plan comes amid growing signs that the governor’s plan is in serious trouble as the legislative session moves along.
“I don’t see the support in the Senate or the House side for a wholesale change in the formula,” said House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican.
O’Neal is not alone. Senators have even suggested the plan might need to be studied between legislative sessions.
Republican state Sen. John Vratil of Leawood recently said he thought it would take two or three years to pass the governor’s plan because of its complexities. He said the Senate plan should be easier to explain.
“It’s simple. People can understand it. That’s one of the attractions of it,” Vratil said of the Senate plan. “I think people don’t believe the governor’s school finance formula is simple or understandable, so they tend to shy away from it.”
Brownback had proposed giving school districts the unrestricted ability to raise property taxes to fund local school needs.
The plan also eliminated a number of special funding categories such as money for at-risk or bilingual students. The governor’s plan lumped all that money into one category, giving schools more flexibility to decide how to spend it.
The governor has maintained that pouring more money into a broken school formula is futile.
“More money without reform is not the solution,” said the governor’s spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag. “The governor’s school finance formula includes increased funding for schools and moves our state from a school finance system trapped in litigation to a simpler system focused on getting dollars out of the courtroom and into the classroom.”
However, the plan has run into problems with school officials who were worried that the plan would lock districts into inadequately low funding levels without accounting for increased costs in the future.
Some districts also voiced concern that the governor’s plan did not provide enough money to educate at-risk and bilingual students. Others complained that the governor’s plan shifted a state responsibility onto the shoulders of property owners.
Even in Johnson County, where districts have generally been supportive of the governor’s plan, there were requests for the state to include funding for all-day kindergarten.
But with so many facets of the plan under attack, passage appears unlikely to some.
“There are various questions and concerns about the governor’s bill that, I think, will make it very difficult to pass this year,” said Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.
The Senate plan would devote surplus state funds to put $100 million into schools over the next two years. The money would raise base aid per pupil by $74 in 2012-13 and $74 more the following year.
The plan also would give local districts some limited ability to raise property taxes on their own.
Under the Senate plan, the Blue Valley School District would get an extra $4.2 million, Olathe would receive about $5.4 million and the Shawnee Mission District would receive $5.1 million. The Kansas City, Kan., school district would get about $4.6 million more.
But even with an infusion of more cash coupled with limited authority to raise taxes, some area school districts aren’t racing to embrace the Senate’s plan.
The Senate plan “is not a long-term solution in our opinion,” said Shawnee Mission Superintendent Gene Johnson.
“We appreciate the work that’s been done on that bill, but we’re still proponents of unlimited local authority,” Johnson added.
The Senate plan, however, might be tough to get passed in the House, where lawmakers think a lot of money already has been made available to schools, including laws that allow them to use some reserves.
With a lot of talk in the statehouse about property taxes being too high, O’Neal said, “Why would you create an environment where you’re raising more property taxes?”
Brownback’s plan to rewrite the existing school formula comes as the state faces two lawsuits over how elementary and secondary education in Kansas is bankrolled.
Brownback has been urging the Legislature to rewrite the school formula now before the matter is decided in court, possibly costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Your best time to deal with this is before you go to trial,” Brownback argued. “As an old attorney and litigator, the time to settle something is before you go to trial.”