Kansas lawmakers are one step closer to mending state education funding, but it could cost most Johnson County school districts.
Lawmakers are expected to debate a plan Friday that would cut money from all school districts’ operating budgets in order to help boost funding for poor districts by $38 million and satisfy a state Supreme Court order.
The plan, approved in committee votes Thursday, would help districts like Kansas City, Kan., but hurt Blue Valley, Shawnee Mission and Olathe. Still, Johnson County superintendents said they reluctantly endorsed the plan.
Blue Valley could lose roughly $2.95 million, according to the Kansas Legislative Research Department. Shawnee Mission could lose about $2.1 million and Olathe more than $1 million.
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Kansas City, Kan., could see an increase of about $1.6 million.
Shawnee Mission superintendent Jim Hinson said he would have preferred that the plan include a “hold harmless” provision so property-wealthy districts like those in Johnson County would not lose money. But, he said, it may not be an option given the state’s current budget situation.
“If you have available funds, fund the hold harmless,” Hinson said. “If you don’t, take the highest need first.”
Lawmakers met Thursday in the first day of a special session called by Gov. Sam Brownback. They face a June 30 deadline from the Kansas Supreme Court to fix inequities in school finance or risk the closure of the state’s school districts next month.
The court advised that one way to do that is to restore the state’s old equalization formula, which gave extra aid to poor districts that are unable to raise as much revenue from local property tax.
That would cost the state $38 million to do, which is not an easy task when the state faces a $45 million budget hole this fiscal year. Also troubling to some: As much as 75 percent of the money could go toward lowering local property taxes, not boosting classroom spending.
Republican leaders want to use existing K-12 funds to pay for the fix.
Rep. Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican and House budget chairman, said the plan outlined Thursday would cut 0.5 percent from all school districts’ operating budgets to help pay for the equalization aid. That would add up to $13 million.
The bill also would cut funding for virtual schools by $2.8 million and take $7.2 million from the state’s K-12 extraordinary needs fund, a pool of money intended to help districts cope with unforeseen expenses. That would still leave $8 million in the extraordinary needs fund.
Another $4.1 million would come from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federally funded welfare program, and $10.5 million would come from the state’s tobacco settlement.
Ryckman and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, met with the superintendents of five school districts this week: Wichita; Kansas City, Kan.; Olathe; Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley.
Kansas City, Kan., is the final large school district to hold out support for the plan.
Kansas City, Kan., spokesman David Smith said while the plan does have the right amount of funding, it may not be constitutional. He said the court specifically warned against taking away money from schools to address equity.
Cynthia Lane, superintendent of the Kansas City, Kan., district, said of the meetings earlier in the week: “What happened on Monday was a presentation of options, and the tone in the room was that if there are no other options, then we can agree with that. But there was no agreement and, frankly, since that time we have learned that there are some other options that need to be considered that don’t involve cutting schools.”
Brownback said Thursday that he was annoyed at what he described as the court’s intrusion into the legislative process, and he reiterated that he’d like to see an end to the “constant cycle of litigation.”
“What’s really troubling about this one, it’s 1 percent of the funding, and most of this money will go for property tax relief; it’s not even going to get into the classroom,” Brownback said. “I think most Kansans, if they realized that, would not agree with what the court has ordered.”
As the first day of the special session came to a close, Brownback said he’d like to see legislation come his way Friday.
But House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stillwell Republican, said after the House adjourned for the day that he had heard of another education funding plan that he hadn’t seen yet. He hesitantly called it the “moderate Republican plan.”
“I have no idea what’s in it, whether it’s going to be accepted this week here,” Merrick said. “I don’t control that. This body controls that. … I’ve got a lot of power, but I don’t control things.”
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said lawmakers have other options that they need to explore before moving forward with the leadership-backed plan.
“This one is being treated like the only one available to us. And it is so inherently flawed,” she said. “It’s a joke to think that we will satisfy the court by taking money out of the classroom to put into property tax relief.”
Rooker and a small coalition of Republicans are pushing for a bill that would take money from a variety of sources, including the state’s tobacco settlement, a job creation fund and motor vehicle fee fund, to avoid the cut to schools.
Rooker was blocked introducing the bill herself because she does not sit on the House Appropriations Committee, but she said the bill may be offered in amendment form when the House holds a debate.
Outside the Capitol on Thursday, educators, parents and their children let lawmakers know what they thought about the situation.
They marched outside, some chanting “Shame!” while others carried signs. Some demonstrators said they thought whatever solution state leaders came up with would only be a temporary fix.
“We’re fighting for the rights of our kids,” said Vonda Morris, a teacher from the Shawnee Mission district. “Someone has to have their back, and it’s not Brownback.”
Erica Massman, a parent from the Johnson County group Stand Up Blue Valley, said it’s important for the voters to pick pro-education candidates in the August primary election. The court also has to follow the constitution, she said.
“Obviously I’d like to keep the funding — we are a pro-Blue Valley school district group — but Blue Valley voters need to start voting in a different way if they want their students to have money,” she said. “And they can do that on Aug. 2.”
Merrick bristled when asked if the legislators’ votes during the special session could hurt them at the ballot box come election time.
“I think every legislator here is pro-education,” Merrick said. “I mean, I get labeled as being anti-education. I’ve voted for more funding for education in my 16 years. I’ve voted for a lot of funding.
“There’s more funding this year than there was last year, more last year than there was the year before,” he said. “It’s never going to be enough. I don’t think the lawsuit ever goes away. I don’t care. We can please the court, do everything they want, but it’s not going to be. … We’ve been having lawsuits on education for 50 years. And the lawyers are getting rich.”
Republicans officially introduced their plan early Thursday at a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee.
Democrats attempted to do the same but were blocked procedurally by majority Republicans, who voted against allowing the minority party to introduce its bill, an unusual move at the Legislature.
The Democratic plan wouldn’t cut schools’ operating budget, but it would empty out the state’s K-12 extraordinary needs fund to pay for the fix.
The Senate Judiciary Committee gave approval Thursday to a bill that would create a constitutional amendment preventing the Supreme Court from closing schools in the future.
The bill, which would also cap education spending at 45 percent of the total state budget, was introduced earlier Thursday.
Discussion during the hearing centered on giving voters the opportunity to decide whether the court should be able to close schools.
Sen. Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, distributed a poll from Public Policy Polling that showed 71 percent of voters did not want an amendment limiting the state Supreme Court’s powers. However, several members of the committee expressed concerns about the wording of the poll.
Senate vice president and committee chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said polling shouldn’t get in the way of the voters seeing the measure on the ballot.
“There’s only one poll that we should listen to: the general election in November,” King said.
Miranda Davis, email@example.com