The Kansas Legislature’s response to a court order on school funding at first seemed like a backdoor victory for Johnson County’s relatively wealthy schools.
Some state education dollars would shift away to school districts with less robust tax bases. But to ease the transition, districts in richer areas are promised new powers to raise their property taxes — something Johnson County school officials had long yearned for.
Yet early analysis of the legislation awaiting Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature or veto — and not still fully understood in state education circles — suggests any funding boon may be fleeting.
And even if the extra taxing authority sticks, it won’t make up for years of cuts.
Critically, the legislation raises the cap, for now, on how much school districts can collect through local property taxes.
That “is in no way a windfall and does not solve our ongoing budget pressures,” Blue Valley Superintendent Tom Trigg said in an email. That said, he valued the new local taxing authority included in the bill.
All told, the pending deal could yield more than $15 million a year for Johnson County schools courtesy of higher property taxes.
Blue Valley stands to gain about $3 million a year from the bill, while Olathe could pick up about $6 million and Shawnee Mission $3.3 million.
Compare that to budget adjustments in recent recession-ravaged years. Blue Valley has trimmed about $11 million, Olathe about $25 million. From 2009 to 2012, Shawnee Mission schools shaved roughly $28 million in spending. Kansas City, Kan., schools have cut about $40 million in the last five years.
The added local tax dollars come as a byproduct of the state’s battles over school financing. A lawsuit contended the governor and lawmakers violated the state constitutional mandate to provide “suitable” funding for local schools.
Earlier this spring, the Kansas Supreme Court gave a measured response. It sent the broadest issue of per-student funding levels back to a lower court, perhaps extending that fight for years to come.
But the same case challenged how the school funding formula balanced the needs of property-rich and property-poor school districts. On that, the high court gave the Legislature an ultimatum: Find more money for the poorer schools by summer or we’ll order a fix ourselves.
In a series of late-night sessions leading up to their spring break last weekend, lawmakers hammered out a bill that tried to answer the court mandate by shifting $126 million to resolve the wealth disparity.
Because that took money away from places like Johnson County, it required compromise. Chief among the concessions were changes in local taxing authority.
Existing law caps the amount districts can raise from local property taxes at 31 percent of what they get from the state in school funding. For instance, for every $100 Topeka sends to a school district, local taxpayers can add no more than $31. The new bill would increase that to 33 percent.
Additionally, the bill would change some technical measurements for how that state aid, and the local cap, are calculated. The net effect allows districts to raise their property taxes even more.
The bill gives 12 districts statewide, including four in Johnson County, the power to raise the cap on property taxes without an election this year. They would have to conduct a mail-ballot election before the 2015-16 school year.
Raising the cap under the legislation could cost a Blue Valley taxpayer about $31.50 more in taxes a year on a $200,000 home. Taxes on a $200,000 home in the Shawnee Mission district would go up $27.60.
While that means more money for districts, it comes with caveats.
Some districts won’t be able to take advantage of new taxing powers, because their voters haven’t already OK’d property taxes that hit the existing cap. And school boards that do raise taxes unilaterally would run the risk that property tax-weary voters might not go along later, forcing them to cut whatever spending they add to their budgets.
State Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican, helped guide the school finance bill through the Legislature. He said Johnson County residents will likely support local tax hikes for education.
“We have very strong patrons of schools,” he said.
And he said the Legislature could always revisit the formula change to retain the schools’ taxing powers.
In the meantime, districts are already looking at what they’ll do with added funding in the short-term. Olathe would like to use any new money to help hire more teachers and support staff. The school district has almost 100 fewer teachers today than it did in 2008-09 even as it’s gained almost 2,500 students.
The added taxing power is just “a very small step” needed for the classroom and staff, said Olathe Superintendent Marlin Berry.
Sen. Jim Denning, another Overland Park Republican, said he worked closely with Johnson County school administrators to develop the bill. The extra taxing authority probably doesn’t solve schools’ long-term budget wants, he said, but “surely it’s a strong step in the right direction in this environment.”