A fresh plan for fixing a funding imbalance between rich and poor school districts in Kansas would give local officials more power to raise property taxes for education.
The state Senate’s leadership on Wednesday rolled out a plan calling for adding $134 million to support local schools in response to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found a funding disparity between property-rich and property-poor school districts.
In effect, the plan would funnel more money to poorer districts. It would also allow all districts to ask voters for higher property tax rates, giving richer districts a way to make up for any loss in state aid.
That plan would use $57 million in savings gained from tweaking parts of the state school finance formula that provides money for student transportation, Internet-based virtual school enrollment and low-achieving students.
It was immediately unclear how the rest of the money would be raised, but some will likely come from Gov. Sam Brownback’s now-dormant proposal to fund all-day kindergarten.
One key element to the plan would give local school districts the ability to raise more property taxes with voter approval, something long sought in Johnson County.
That new taxing authority holds the potential to more than offset any money that Johnson County schools would lose because of changes made in the finance formula.
Such new local taxing powers could be pivotal in winning backing from Johnson County lawmakers. They have signaled reluctance — if not outright opposition — to fund a plan that redistributes money from Johnson County.
“It’s a good start,” said Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican. “With Johnson County producing almost 29 percent of state revenues, we’re not about to vote as a delegation to put $70, $90 or $100 million into a school plan and have our schools lose money.”
Local funding is now capped at 31 percent of what school districts receive from the state. The Senate plan would increase that to 33 percent.
The additional taxing power — if approved by local voters — would give up to $3.1 million to Shawnee Mission schools, $2.6 million to Blue Valley, $3.3 million to Olathe, $739,000 to De Soto, $842,000 to Gardner Edgerton and $492,000 to Spring Hill.
After the formula is modified, every Johnson County school district would gain revenue except for Spring Hill, which would lose a hefty amount for reducing funds for virtual school enrollment.
Republican Sen. Greg Smith of Overland Park called the Senate plan a “starting point.” He said he didn’t think the Senate was “anywhere close to a final solution.”
Anything done this year, he said, would be a temporary fix to comply with court orders. He said the formula needs an overhaul.
“It’s been tweaked and tweaked and tweaked,” Smith said. “It’s time to scrap it.”
The Senate plan unveiled Wednesday is very different from the House plan, which still attempts to write new education policy for the state.
It’s unclear how House leadership will react to the budding Senate proposal.
Plans alive in the Senate and House take money from school districts by changing the funding formula for transporting students. The House plan, however, does not provide any new taxing authority for districts.
The House plan still focuses on a number of educational policies advocated by conservatives such as easing teacher licensing and expanding the number of school districts that can operate free of many state rules and regulations.
The House bill calls for spending $129 million to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. Where that money is coming from is still unclear.
House Appropriations Committee chairman Marc Rhoades on Wednesday refused to even acknowledged that there is a specific figure needed to satisfy the courts. The Supreme Court only said the state had to fix the wealth disparity, which state education officials estimate at about $129 million.
“The court didn’t tell us how much money to do,” said Rhoades, a Newton Republican. “I think it’s easy for us to say, ‘Let’s spend the money and get out of town.’ I don’t think that’s necessarily appropriate given the amount of money we’re talking about.”
Lawmakers are trying to figure out a way to answer the court ruling with a limited amount of new state money.
“What they’re clearly struggling with is a reluctance on the part of some legislators to want to add the money to comply,” said Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “What is happening now is kind of a search for ways to save money.”
He said other choices will take money away from school districts.
“The question is how voters, patrons and parents will feel about that,” he said.
Democrats back a bill that calls for spending $129 million on the court mandate from the state’s reserves.
Republican Rep. Melissa Rooker of Fairway said the clearest path to solving the issue is to provide the money to resolve the equity shortcomings.
The Legislature could do something short of that, but that leaves it in the hands of judges, Rooker said.
Rooker, who sits on the House Education Committee, called the Senate plan a “mixed bag.”
She said the plan appears to shift money around in a way that could hurt school districts if voters don’t approve extra funding at the polls.
“We are doing a whole lot of gymnastics,” she said, “to get around funding the liability we have.”