Brownback plan would allow schools to raise more money locally

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback waded into the complex waters of school finance Wednesday with a sweeping new plan that would give Johnson County schools their long-sought ability to raise more taxes locally.

Brownback’s policy director, Landon Fulmer, unveiled the plan to the Kansas Board of Education, saying it would provide more flexibility to local school districts, stabilize education funding for the long term, and give local school boards more power in making pocketbook decisions.

“The current formula is broken,” Fulmer said during an earlier briefing. “We’re giving local school boards control over where they want to put local resources. We’re giving local school districts the flexibility to decide what they need to do locally.”

The plan, which would start in the 2013-14 school year, is part of Brownback’s goal of increasing the percentage of students ready to go to college or enter the work force by the time they graduate from high school.

In addition to lifting the cap on local school spending, the plan would redistribute property taxes statewide to eliminate the inequity between wealthy and poorer school districts, the administration said.

Designed to ensure that no district loses money in the transition, the plan sets a minimum for state aid at $4,492 per student as part of an attempt to stabilize education funding from year to year. Schools now receive $3,780 per student. It would cost about $38 million more in state general funds.

But the new school formula would not designate money for mandatory spending on at-risk or bilingual students, giving local districts more autonomy about how they address the needs of those populations. Under the new financing formula, the state also would not help pay for bonds used for school construction.

The new plan rewrites one that the state developed in 1992 that has led to several court challenges.

Brownback’s proposal figures to be a centerpiece in the upcoming 2012 legislative session where its prospects were not immediately clear.

“It’s way too early to tell until we know what all the aspects of it are,” said Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican. “It’s certainly a radical change from what we’re used to.”

But some Johnson County educators praised Brownback’s initiative as an effort to let schools have more control over local funding,

“We’re encouraged,” said Shawnee Mission Superintendent Gene Johnson. “I think the plan has a lot of promise.”

Critics, however, feared it would continue to link property wealth with educational opportunity and continue to underfund schools.

“Under the Brownback plan, school funding will be permanently locked in at an inadequately low level despite increasing state revenue,” the Kansas National Education Association’s Karen Godfrey said in a statement. “There will be no adjustments for increases due to inflation. If there’s any change in a school’s demographics, Brownback is saying: too bad.”

School officials in Olathe also were less than enthusiastic. And Kansas City, Kan., school administrators maintained that the state hasn’t lived up to past funding commitments.

“We have a funding formula that would work, if it was appropriated,” said David A. Smith, the district’s chief of staff.

Olathe officials said they still had many questions about how the new plan would play out. Among other things, they were concerned about losing state funds for new construction, which contributed about $39 million to the district’s $206 million in bond issues in 2007 and 2008.

“Moving forward, when we build a new high school, our local taxpayers would have to pay 100 percent of it instead of getting some state aid,” said Olathe Superintendent Marlin Berry.

The new funding formula comes as the state faces two lawsuits over how elementary and secondary education in Kansas is bankrolled.

A group of Shawnee Mission parents is challenging the constitutionality of the existing cap on local spending — something that would be removed under the Brownback plan. That case was dismissed by a federal judge and is now being appealed.

Another lawsuit in state court brought by 63 Kansas school districts, including Kansas City, Kan., argues that education spending cuts violate the state constitution.

One goal of the new plan is to break what Fulmer called the “cycle of litigation,” an issue that dates to 2005, when the Kansas Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to spend millions more on schools.

Fulmer speculated Wednesday that another unfavorable court decision could cost Kansas taxpayers somewhere between $700 million and $1 billion — money the state can ill afford.

“I think there would be a huge outcry if that were to happen,” Fulmer said.

Fulmer told the Kansas Board of Education that he believes the state is in “defensible territory” with the new funding plan.

But Wichita lawyer Alan Rupe, who filed suit on behalf of the 63 school districts, was quick to attack that assertion. Rupe said the governor’s plan only freezes education spending at a certain level and leaves it up to local school districts to raise additional money on their own.

“That would be wildly popular in Johnson County, Kan., where there’s a huge amount of property wealth,” Rupe said. “In the property-poor areas of the state where they can do virtually nothing because the taxpayers can’t afford to do it, its going to be very unpopular.”

Rupe noted the state Supreme Court has ruled that educational opportunity shouldn’t be a function of property wealth. The governor’s plan doesn’t make that issue disappear, he said.

“In terms of litigation it’s not going to be the end of the road because his plan doesn’t repeal the decisions from the Kansas Supreme Court that say wealth based distribution of funds is unconstitutional,” he said.

Rupe said the governor’s plan needs to do more to cover the costs of education.

“Without addressing the costs of what schools need to spend in order to get the kind of performance the 21st Century demands, it is a system doomed to failure,” he argued. “It doesn’t do what the Kansas Supreme Court and the Kansas Constitution requires and that is fund education based on its costs.”

The Brownback administration, however, contended that poorer districts will not be left in the lurch. If wealthier districts, such as Blue Valley or Shawnee Mission, choose to raise their property taxes beyond a certain point, the state will send extra money to the poorer districts.

Blue Valley Superintendent Tom Trigg was pleased to see the state create a plan to help the poorest districts and yet allow for local control — something his district has wanted for many years.

“From that aspect alone we view this as a very positive step,” Trigg said.

Some Blue Valley taxpayers had criticized the old funding plan, which didn’t allow them to increase their taxes even as the district was forced to make $11 million in cuts.

Trigg wasn’t ready to predict that his district would quickly act to increase taxes if Brownback’s plan is adopted. “We need to look very closely at the burden that our taxpayers have,” Trigg said.

Other school officials remained concerned. While the governor’s plan seeks to maintain funding, it doesn’t account for significant cuts experienced in recent years, said KCK’s chief of staff Smith.

“We’ve been making things work, but at a significant cost to continuing to develop for our future,” he said. “To say we’re going to hold you harmless and keep you here — here is not where we need to be.”