Key Republican legislators said Wednesday that they’re close to an agreement with Kansas educators on a $38 million plan aimed at keeping public schools open and satisfying a court mandate to help poor districts.
Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman Ty Masterson and House Appropriations Committee chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. said the proposal is likely to shift existing state dollars to poor districts. But an attorney representing four districts suing the state over education funding questioned whether the Kansas Supreme Court would accept such a plan.
The Republican-dominated Legislature convenes Thursday for a special session called by Gov. Sam Brownback to address a Supreme Court ruling last month. The justices said the state’s education funding system remains unfair to poor school districts and warned that schools might not reopen after June 30 if lawmakers don’t make further changes.
Masterson, from Andover, and Ryckman, from Olathe, have been negotiating this week with school superintendents. Their districts include Wichita and Kansas City, Kan., two of the four suing the state. They also include the Blue Valley, Olathe and Shawnee Mission districts in Johnson County, which stand to lose state funds.
“The schools are coming to the table, and so is the Legislature, to find a solution to keep schools open,” Masterson said.
Ryckman and Masterson hadn’t released the details of their plan.
Officials with the four Johnson County school districts and Kansas City, Kan., declined to comment Wednesday.
The state spends more than $4 billion a year on aid to its 286 school districts, and Brownback is pushing a plan to boost the total by $38 million to help poor districts. The idea has bipartisan support, but with the state facing ongoing budget problems, a key issue is paying for it.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said Wednesday afternoon that he thinks leaders will able to get the 63 votes needed to pass it in the House.
“But anything we do there’s going to be five factions that want to do something else,” Merrick said. “Hopefully we can it get done quicker. Sooner than later. You know bad things happen when we’re here a long time.”
The court ruled school funding inequitable after the state scrapped its school finance formula and moved to block grants. The old school finance law included an equalization formula that provided money to poorer districts that can’t raise as much from property taxes as richer districts.
Johnson County superintendents have expressed concern that restoring the old equalization formula would take money from their districts, which receive more under the block grants. They have called for lawmakers to hold their districts harmless — to not cut their funding while boosting the funding of poorer districts.
Masterson said there’s been a discussion about redirecting a small percentage of all districts’ general aid for operating expenditures to help poor districts.
But John Robb, an attorney representing the four districts suing the state, said legislators shouldn’t redirect funds for general operations or emergency needs. He predicted the Supreme Court would “bounce” such a plan but would accept one boosting overall education funding by $38 million.
“They’re playing with fire,” Robb said. “They’re almost guaranteeing a shutdown and a second special session.”
Another complication has been a push from Johnson County officials for a $50 million plan with extra funds to ensure that no district has any funds redistributed to poorer ones. Robb and legislators from other areas contend Johnson County districts could make up lost state dollars with small local property tax increases.
Ryckman said Johnson County superintendents have been “team players” in negotiations, without elaborating.
A group of parents from Johnson County, under the name Stand Up Blue Valley, plans to rally with other education groups as legislators meet Thursday.
One of the group’s leaders, Patty Logan, said Wednesday that cutting money from any schools in Kansas, whether it be in Johnson County or Kansas City, Kan., was unacceptable.
“There’s nothing left in Kansas to cut from,” Logan said. “Everything that could have been cut has already been cut.”
The Associated Press, Bryan Lowry of The Wichita Eagle, and The Star’s Hunter Woodall and Miranda Davis contributed to this report.