Kansas Democrats announce their own school finance plan

Borrowing a little from Republicans, Kansas Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday introduced a plan to use surplus cash to restore school cuts.

“We strongly believe the process of restoring cuts must begin immediately,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka.

Hensley and other Democratic lawmakers detailed their funding plan in Prairie Village at Mission Valley Middle School, which was closed because of budget cuts.

They compared their plan to Republican attempts last year to use new revenues from growth to lower income taxes.

“Democrats are investing excess revenue to restore cuts to public schools,” Hensley said. “Republicans want to give all the state’s excess revenue to multibillion-dollar corporations in the form of income tax breaks.”

Democrats proposed using excess revenues to bring state base aid per pupil up to $4,492 from its current level of $3,780.

To do that, they want to use a slice of surplus tax revenues to inject schools with $90 million — $45 million in the 2012-13 school year, and another $45 million the following year.

A year after that, Democrats would put $90 million into schools by setting aside 50 percent of excess state tax revenues — estimated at $180 million in fiscal 2015. They want to take the other half of the surplus and return it to cities and counties to reduce property taxes.

Under their plan, Democrats estimated Johnson County schools would get more than $30 million. Wyandotte County school districts would receive $10 million more under the Democratic plan.

The Democratic plan differs significantly from what Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed. The Republican governor wants to rewrite the school funding formula and give school districts the unlimited ability to raise more money through local property tax increases.

“The difference is we believe that local parents working with local administrators and local school boards is the best way to make spending decisions to meet the needs of local children,” said Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag. “That includes the ability of local communities to lower their local mill levy as they see fit. Under the governor’s proposal, many of our struggling rural communities could choose to lower their mill levy rate and still maintain the same level of education funding from the previous year.”

Critics of Brownback’s plan, however, contend it locks school funding in place at an inadequately low level.

They also argued it doesn’t adjust for inflation or large populations of bilingual and special needs students.

Some critics also believe that the governor’s plan is unconstitutional because educational opportunity would be linked to property wealth.

But some Johnson County school officials said the Democratic plan lacks one key element — local control.

Blue Valley Superintendent Tom Trigg said in the short term his district would receive an infusion of money with the Democratic plan, but it doesn’t go far enough.

“We would like for our own Board of Education members, our own constituents to be able to determine whether or not they would like to support the district to a greater measure than that,” Trigg said.

Officials in the Kansas City, Kan., school district were intrigued by the plan since it assumes that funding is the problem, not the financing formula.

“We like the idea of continuing with the current formula,” said David A. Smith, chief of staff for the Kansas City, Kan., district.

The Democratic plan “gets the additional funding to all students in Kansas according to need. And that’s what the current formula does,” Smith said.

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