A Kansas Senate committee gave the go-ahead Thursday to a proposed fix of the state’s school equalization formula, but a similar plan in a House committee drew bitter reaction from lawmakers and didn’t advance.
Legislators are trying to beat a June 30 deadline imposed by the state Supreme Court. Unless a new equalization formula is in place by then, the court said last month, public schools won’t open for the 2016-2017 school year.
“To me, this was the sure way we could keep our schools open,” said Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr. about the House bill, which would have restored the state’s former equalization formula.
“This was, to me and to others, one of the answers to the court’s opinion,” said Ryckman, an Olathe Republican and House Appropriations Committee chairman. “It’s not the answer today.”
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The Senate bill also restores the old equalization formula, which the court said was one way to remedy inequities, but it redistributes state aid among districts without spending any additional funds. The House plan would add about $20 million in new state aid.
“This is simply a reshuffling of the dollars that are already appropriated,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican and chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, about the Senate bill.
“We are under the gun,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling. “They’re saying, ‘Redistribute it the way we want it distributed, or we’ll close the schools.’ ”
But a similar argument by Ryckman didn’t sway most Appropriations Committee members, particularly those representing Johnson County, who said they want no part in returning to the old equalization formula.
The Blue Valley, Shawnee Mission and Olathe districts collectively would lose more than $5 million in state aid under the House bill. The loss would be about $10 million under the Senate bill. The districts could raise property tax levies to make up the difference.
Meanwhile, property-poor districts would have received more aid, although a large portion of that money likely would go to property tax relief.
“All this will do is increase the mill rate in Blue Valley and reduce the rate in Wichita,” said Rep. Jerry Lunn, an Overland Park Republican. “We can do much better. I think we’re headed in the wrong direction.”
Legislators were angry about the idea of restoring the old equalization formula and angry at the Supreme Court for suggesting it.
“I’ll flat-out say it, the court was wrong,” said Rep. Amanda Grosserode, a Lenexa Republican. “And they’re wrong because they don’t understand how we fund our schools.”
Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican, called on lawmakers to devise a new overall school financing formula before the end of this session, one that would satisfy the court’s equalization ruling.
“I would urge us to move forward,” Kleeb said. “This is always the storm brewing. This is always the elephant in the room.”
Last year, the Legislature put in place a block-grant formula for two years until a new school financing formula could be written. The Supreme Court said in February that the block-grant plan didn’t properly equalize funding among districts.
Most senators on the Ways and Means Committee, including Masterson, were less than enthusiastic about their bill, only hopeful it would satisfy the ruling by the state’s high court.
“I’m not a fan,” he said, “but I’m not going to take a risk of closing the schools because I don’t like this.”
Masterson said he looked forward to a debate of the bill on the Senate floor, but he acknowledged that the death of the House bill in committee gave him pause.
Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, opposed the bill, saying a return to the old formula “makes no sense to me.”