Government & Politics

Johnson County schools say Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan would cost them money

Facing a possible court-ordered school shutdown and a Kansas Legislature at odds with itself over education funding, Johnson County districts called Thursday for added money as a temporary fix.

The Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, Gardner Edgerton, De Soto and Olathe schools pressed Thursday for a plan that would essentially call for lawmakers to put $50 million into school funding.

That would include about $38 million needed to restore an old school funding formula used before the state switched to block grants — a move ultimately rejected by the courts.

But going back to that formula would cut funding for some districts. So the Johnson County coalition, backed by their local chambers of commerce, wants roughly $12 million more added to the pot.

“What’s another $11 (million) or $12 million out of a $4 billion state budget? … It’s a short-term fix,” Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson said at an Overland Park news conference. “Get it solved.”

The extra $12 million — called “hold harmless” money because it means no district comes up short if the state adopts a distribution formula it ditched two years ago — would help 96 districts across the state. That would reach nearly every legislative district in the state, possibly giving lawmakers political cover for approving more spending.

“Hold harmless is not new for us in Kansas or in most states,” said Blue Valley Superintendent Todd White.

Instead, he and others pushing the plan said it’s the standard tweak needed whenever new math is launched to figure out how much money state officials will send to individual school districts.

But legislators have been reluctant to add any more money and resentful of court orders telling them to change what is a legislative decision.

In fact, the news conference came as three top Republican lawmakers said the state doesn’t have to spend $38 million to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court order.

Gov. Sam Brownback has called the Legislature into special session next week in search of a solution, a move forced by a May 27 ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court that found the state’s education funding formula shorted poorer school districts.

That decision sprang from the latest twist in the Gannon v. Kansas case, with the justices insisting lawmakers either rewrite the state’s system for how it hands out aid to local districts by June 30 or risk a shutdown of the state’s public schools.

Legislators continue to chafe at the court’s position, many contending it upsets the balance between the judiciary and the Legislature by, as they see it, stealing their power to decide school funding. But the high court insists it is only interpreting the Kansas Constitution’s demand that the state ensure adequate and equitable funding for all state schools.

Whatever might break the political stalemate in Topeka, Johnson County school districts almost surely will sit at the center of the deal. Their legislative delegation in the state House and Senate figures among the most, if not the most, powerful factions in the Legislature.

What’s more, Johnson County school districts sit on the wealthiest property tax bases in Kansas. That makes them more able to raise levies on local taxpayers than small rural districts, Wichita schools or urban Kansas City, Kan., schools.

To raise the same added revenue as most Johnson County districts, said Kansas City, Kan., schools chief of staff David Smith, the district needs to raise its property tax rate roughly three times as much.

Smith was in Topeka on Thursday to lobby legislators.

When the Legislature in 2015 went to a block grant formula, that didn’t account for the fact that the Kansas City, Kan., district was growing, Smith said. And no other district has such a large student population drawn from poor families.

He wants to return to the old formula that would account for the challenges in the district and increase funding statewide at least $38 million.

“We’ve been hurt continuously during this time by how the state’s failed to live up to its obligations,” Smith said. “We’ve cratered during that time and had to ask more and more of our local” taxpayers.

Lawmakers disagree

Some top Republicans said they didn’t think it would be necessary to spend $38 million to comply with the court order.

“Absolutely not,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican.

“Their document never mentioned a figure. All they requested was equity, and that can be done with current funds.”

The Legislature passed a bill in March that reshuffled existing funds, but that was rejected by the court in May. Wagle blamed that on the decision to not decrease funding for any school districts, which she said undercut lawmakers’ efforts to equalize funding in the courts’ eyes.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, an Independence Republican and an attorney, has a similar interpretation of the court’s rulings.

“The Kansas Supreme Court has been clear that there are many ways to solve what they see as the equity problem and that new money isn’t mandatory to do it,” King said. “Certainly you can solve it by putting new money in, and I’m sure we will consider it, but that isn’t the only way to solve it and we’re looking at other ways to solve it as well.”

Speaking from the bench last month, Justice Dan Biles suggested that there are at least two ways to achieve equity: giving poorer districts more money to bring them level with wealthy districts or capping the spending authority of wealthier districts.

The $38 million figure cited by the governor comes from a Kansas Department of Education analysis of how much it would cost to restore the state’s old equalization formula and fully fund it, an option the court has identified as a “safe harbor” for lawmakers.

Rep. Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican and House budget chairman, said he is working on a funding plan “with lots of input from superintendents around the state.”

He did not go into details, but he echoed Wagle’s sentiment that the justices did not specify a dollar amount.

On Thursday, lawmakers criticized the Kansas Supreme Court and one another as they discussed changing the state constitution to prevent courts from closing schools in the future.

Two proposed constitutional amendments wouldn’t have any impact on the Legislature’s current standoff with the court, but they could restrict what the court can do when it decides whether school funding is adequate in the near future. Either amendment would require approval by two-thirds of the Legislature and a majority of the state’s voters.

“I think there’s a good share of our caucus that wants to see that,” said Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican.

Both versions of the amendment also would prevent the Legislature from closing schools in response to a court order.

The amendment would appear on the November ballot.

The Senate and House judiciary committees will decide Friday whether to act on the proposals.

The Star’s Miranda Davis contributed to this report.

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon

Gain or lose?

If the Legislature reverts back to the old formula, how much does each school district gain or lose?

Johnson County

Blue Valley: loss of $2,407,372

Spring Hill: gain of $191,036

Gardner Edgerton: gain of $395,264

De Soto: loss of $296,414

Olathe: loss of $898,060

Shawnee Mission: loss of $1,467,748

Wyandotte County

Turner: gain of $170,414

Piper: gain of $331,758

Bonner Springs: gain of $237,256

Kansas City: gain of $1,035,494

Source: Kansas Department of Education

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