Government & Politics

State cuts and boosts loom over Kansas school districts

As last week’s special legislative session got underway in Kansas, youngsters outside the Capitol in Topeka chanted, “We want to go to school.”
As last week’s special legislative session got underway in Kansas, youngsters outside the Capitol in Topeka chanted, “We want to go to school.”

The special session is over and a brokered solution has been signed into law, but the new wrinkles of the education funding debate in Kansas are still setting in for area school districts.

The majority of Johnson County’s school districts lose state aid under the bill, which Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law this week. Blue Valley is estimated to lose about $2.4 million, while Shawnee Mission would be down about $1.44 million, according to the state’s legislative research department.

The loss of state money could be offset in some districts by raising property taxes through a mill levy increase. It’s unclear if residents will see an increase in their taxes, but it would probably be small in districts like Blue Valley.

Russell Knapp, the Shawnee Mission school district’s chief financial officer, cautioned that the numbers being discussed in Topeka last week were estimates. But he expects that his district will be able to cover the cut. An increase in property taxes by raising the mill levy is possible, Knapp said, but the district’s school board would have to approve that later this summer.

“It’s just a different pot of money,” he said. “It would come from the local taxes versus state aid.”

Blue Valley will have a decision to make on how the district will make up its gap, deputy superintendent Mike Slagle said. It’s late in the game for budget cuts, he said, and the decision could be made to use property taxes, or reserves, to fill in the cut from the Kansas Legislature.

“We recognize this is a one-year fix,” Slagle said. “Certainly if this were a 10-year plan where we would be losing this every year, we’d have a problem with that. But I think for a short term, our board of education is going to have some options to address what’s happened.”

Kansas schools avoided the Legislature’s first proposal last week that would have cut 0.5 percent from every school district in the state in an attempt to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court and equalize funding. The second proposal, which overwhelmingly passed both the House and Senate, gives $38 million to poorer school districts in Kansas and cuts state aid to others like Blue Valley, Shawnee Mission and Olathe.

Olathe is estimated to lose about $648,000 in local option state aid. The district could raise property taxes to make up the difference in state aid, though that’s not the only option, said John Hutchison, the chief financial officer for the Olathe district.

The district could find money somewhere else in the budget, Hutchison said, or use its fund balance to bridge the gap. Doing the latter is a short-term fix, he said, and is similar to cashing in a savings account. It’s still unclear what impact the legislation will have on Olathe, but Kansas lawmakers’ recent decision is looming over school budgets that are being written this summer.

“We have to react to this now in setting our budget for next year,” Hutchison said.

De Soto, like a handful of other districts in the state, is losing some state aid while also getting more money for capital projects. It’s not expecting to increase property taxes in the wake of the new legislation.

The district has a 10-year plan for technology, construction and maintenance that is underfunded, De Soto assistant superintendent Alvie Cater said. The district’s schools are to receive about $500,00 in capital outlay money. That money has restrictions, Cater said, but can be used for summer projects like repairing sidewalks and fixing up school buildings.

“We can’t use capital outlay to pay for teacher salaries,” Cater said.

In Wyandotte County, each of the four school districts will get more money under the new agreement. Kansas City, Kan., is expected to see the greatest benefit locally, with an estimated $1.34 million that could go toward local property tax relief and $1.28 million in capital outlay money. The amount the district will be able to keep and how much will go toward property tax relief depends on local collections, said David Smith, spokesman for the Kansas City, Kan., school district.

“It’s not what you’re promised,” Smith said. “It’s what you’re actually able to collect. … We’ll pay attention to it: Are we up? Are we down? But in the end we know it’s not that simple in that the numbers you see may not be the actual amount that you get.”

Though there are no concrete plans for how the capital money could be used, Smith said, improvements in the district’s buildings need to be made. Their average is 60 years old.

“There’s just a lot of projects,” Smith said. “Roofing projects, renovation projects. It’s not like we’ve had a list of things and the next thing in line is what we’ll do if we get more money. It’s more complicated than that. It will take us some time to be able to settle out with how much money we’re going to have this year.”

Other school districts in Wyandotte County will also see a boost, just not at the same level as Kansas City. Turner, Piper and Bonner Springs will get roughly an additional $500,000 each in state aid because of lawmakers’ efforts last week.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw