A handful of small, rural Kansas school districts face spikes in local property taxes or cuts spending because they’re losing state aid under a new education funding law.
But a few other rural districts could see tax levies decrease significantly, and dozens of districts of all sizes will see modest decreases because of additional state aid for the 2016-17 school year.
The new law that took effect Friday is meant to ensure educational offerings across the state don’t vary too widely by smoothing out the taxes imposed by local districts.
A look at the new law, its origins and its consequences:
Legislators approved the law during a two-day special session last month in response to a state Supreme Court ruling in May that the school funding system remained unfair to poor districts. The court warned public schools might not reopen after June if changes weren’t made.
The justices ruled in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts. All four will see an increase in aid and expect modest property tax decreases.
The court has declared that the Kansas Constitution requires lawmakers to finance a suitable education for every child, whether they live in rich or poor areas. Part of their duty, according to the justices, is making sure that tax rates aren’t far higher in poor areas than in wealthy ones.
BIGGEST TAX SPIKES
Calculations based on data from the state Department of Education show that five districts in southeast Kansas that have fewer than 900 students face the largest property tax increases.
“We don’t want to make cuts that are going to hurt kids,” said Superintendent Kay Lewis of the Humboldt district in Allen County in southeast Kansas, which has fewer than 900 students and faces a 10 percent increase in property taxes.
A new oil pipeline is running through the districts, which boosted their property values – making them richer and less worthy of state aid in the eyes of the education funding system.
In Allen County, Marmaton Valley’s total tax levies could rise 30 percent if it tries to make up for all of the aid it will lose. The Jayhawk district in neighboring Linn County salted away funds, deferring some expenses, to avoid a similar swing, board president Laura Umphenour said.
“It’s sort of extraordinary circumstances outside of the court case that just happened to coincide,” she said.
THE FUNDING FIX
Poor districts’ aid increases by $38 million for 2016-17, while redistributing some aid from wealthy districts and diverting funds from other corners of state government to avoid increasing overall state spending amid ongoing budget problems.
The amount was less than 1 percent of the more than $4 billion a year Kansas already was spending on aid to its 286 school districts. The fix isn’t focused on giving more dollars to classrooms.
“Revenue’s not going to change,” said Bill Lowry, superintendent of the 740-student Hoisington district in Barton County in central Kansas, which could see its tax levies drop 15 percent. “Until you figure out how you’re going to pay for things, it doesn’t really matter what your formulas are.”
Under state law, districts can supplement state dollars by imposing local property taxes for “local option budgets,” but extra spending is capped. To promote fairness for poor districts, the system subsidizes their “LOBs” to hold down local taxes.
The new law increases LOB subsidies for 144 districts, according to the State Department of Education, with taxes dropping by an average of about $33 a year on a $130,000 home, which is close to the median value in Kansas.
Another 97 districts see subsidies decrease or disappear. They potentially could increase property taxes by an average of $28 a year for a $130,000 home.
But districts losing state aid aren’t required to increase property taxes and may not want to increase the burden on residents, choosing instead to tap reserves or cut spending.
Forty-five districts will see no change in their aid, according to the department.