Brownback plan puts Joco schools in a political pinch

Not everything is going Johnson County’s way with Gov. Sam Brownback’s new plan for funding schools.

Yes, Johnson County school districts would get the ability to raise more property taxes locally — something they’ve been seeking for years.

But they could be in a pinch over how they pay for all-day kindergarten, a program that typically can cost parents about $2,700 a year.

Local school officials are worried that the governor’s formula would make it appear like they were double-dipping, forcing them to give up charging for a program that’s believed to help children better prepare for school.

The issue centers on how the state would count kindergarten students in deciding how much districts receive. Brownback wants to count the students as full-time, but his plan doesn’t provide enough money to fund all-day kindergarten for every student statewide.

The students are now counted as half-time, meaning that the Olathe, Blue Valley and the Shawnee Mission districts charge parents who want their kids to benefit from an extra half day of kindergarten.

School leaders say they would have trouble making a case to charge for full-time kindergarten when the state bases its funding as if the kids were attending school full-time but not really providing the funding to sustain the all-day program.

“If the state is saying they’re paying for (one full-time student) and I go to my parents and I say I need you to pay for the other half, as a parent what would you say?,” said Blue Valley Superintendent Tom Trigg.

A similar concern was expressed in Olathe where Superintendent Marlin Berry said he would be hesitant about charging for full-day kindergarten if the state counted kindergartners as full-time students.

Overall, parents are paying to send more than 2,000 students to all-day kindergarten in the Blue Valley, Olathe and Shawnee Mission School districts. The fees bring in about $5.5 million for all three districts combined.

And there are believed to be about another 15 districts across Kansas that charge for all-day kindergarten.

Brownback’s staff has indicated that school districts could still charge for all-day kindergarten, something the governor’s plan doesn’t require. Fund full-time kindergarten statewide could add $70 million more to the governor’s plan.

“Local school boards, superintendents and parents will make the decision whether their districts have all-day kindergarten and how they will fund it. It’s part of districts having more local control over their schools and how they spend their state funding,” said Brownback spokeswoman, Sherriene Jones-Sontag.

Jones-Sontag said the governor expects his plan will be dissected by the Legislature. He’s open to compromises, she said.

“We wholly expect lawmakers and stakeholders to make recommended changes to it, most of which the Governor will probably support, assuming the impact on (state funds) is acceptable to him,” she said.

Trigg and Berry said the process is still very early and the governor’s proposal is likely to change.

They both noted that there are a couple ways to compromise, including the possibility of gradually phasing in the full-time kindergarten student count. Or the new formula could simply count kindergarten students as half time as they are currently.

“I really believe there will be another solution that will come out of this,” Trigg said. “I think in the legislative process we can come up with a solution that will be a win-win for everybody. I want people to know that overall, we’re supportive of the governor’s plan.”

State Rep. Sheryl Spalding, a former member of the Blue Valley School Board, believes there will be a lot of fine tuning to the governor’s plan. She specifically hopes this element of Brownback’s can be been fixed.

“There are going to have to be some tweaks to the formula and maybe some major ones,” Spalding said.

“There are probably some things every school district dislikes and thinks needs to be changed. We will all be working and trading off one thing for another to see if we can’t make the governor’s formula work for for everybody.”