Two bills were introduced in the Kansas Legislature on Friday that sponsors believe will satisfy a recent state Supreme Court ruling and avoid a threatened shutdown of public schools next school year.
A House bill by Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr. of Olathe would equalize funding among school districts, shifting money from wealthier districts such as those in Johnson County to poorer ones. It would also provide about $39 million in additional aid for the 2016-17 school year.
The bill, to be discussed next week, mirrors a recommendation in the recent high court’s ruling, said Ryckman, a Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
“It does pick winners and losers,” he said.
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Last month, the Supreme Court told legislators to address the inequities in state aid among school districts by June 30 or K-12 public schools would not open for the 2016-17 school year.
Under the bill, according to a state estimate, several Johnson County districts would see a reduction in state aid, including the Olathe district, where Ryckman lives and where his children attend school.
Some Johnson County lawmakers said earlier they opposed such a plan, but Ryckman said Friday, “When the court says they’re going to close schools unless you equalize…”
Much of the shifting would result in increases in property taxes by wealthier districts and decreases by poorer districts, Ryckman said.
“That’s the nature of equalization,” he said.
According to estimates, the Shawnee Mission School District would lose about $3 million, the Blue Valley district about $2.4 million and the Olathe district $760,000. The Kansas City, Kan., district would gain $2.1 million.
Reviewing the court’s opinion, Ryckman said, it seemed certain that restoring the state’s old equalization formula would satisfy the high court’s equity ruling.
The $39 million in new aid in the bill includes using the state’s $17 million “extraordinary needs” fund, money set aside in the current block grant program for districts that have unexpected expenses.
The state’s old equalization formula provided extra funds to property-poor districts. Such districts must tax at a higher rate to raise the same funding as property-rich districts. Some of the extra aid goes toward property tax relief.
Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission district officials have said that simply returning to the equalization formula does little more than shift the tax burden. Wealthier districts would need to raise local property taxes to make up for the loss, they said.
That was the sentiment Friday of House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican who lives in the Blue Valley district.
“This would take from my school district — let us raise our taxes — so Wichita can lower their taxes. That makes no sense,” Merrick said. “How is that equity?”
Wichita would gain about $10 million, with about half going to property tax relief.
Al Hanna, interim superintendent of the Blue Valley district, commented earlier about equalization, which he said could become a frustration and a burden on taxpayers.
“The ideal solution is one that doesn’t have a negative impact on the school district or the taxpayers,” he said.
Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican and Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman, introduced a separate proposal Friday. The Senate bill would redistribute state aid for equalization purposes but without extra state spending.
“The difference is mine does not add additional funds,” Masterson said. “It is strictly a reshuffle.”
In Masterson’s plan, 189 school districts would lose state aid and 97 would gain funds, according to estimates by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Research Department. Kansas has 286 school districts.
John Robb, a lawyer representing school districts in the Gannon v. Kansas suit, said he doubted that Masterson’s plan, with no additional funding, would satisfy the high court.
“In essence it’s taking it out of your left pocket to put it in your right pocket,” he said. “I don’t think the Supreme Court will approve that.”
In Ryckman’s proposal, 79 districts would lose funds and 162 would have increases, with the rest flat.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, wants a plan that would satisfy the court’s equity decision and hold wealthier districts harmless for a year.
“I’m frustrated we continue to approach ‘equity’ as an either-or proposition,” either defy the court order or comply with the ruling at the expense of wealthier districts, said Rooker, whose legislative district includes Shawnee Mission schools.
Legislators are facing not only the June 30 deadline from the high court but also a budget that’s newly unbalanced. February tax receipts came in more than $50 million below estimates.
Besides the high court’s recent “equity” ruling about school funding, an “adequacy” ruling is expected later this year. The court could agree with a lower court finding that state aid isn’t adequate to properly finance public schools and demand a spending boost of more than $500 million.
The Wichita Eagle’s Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.