Government & Politics

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback seeks ideas on school funding

Gov. Sam Brownback said Wednesday that he wants to hear from the people of Kansas what the future of school funding should look like.

But he’s not holding town halls or listening sessions. Instead, he wants concerned Kansans to email him their thoughts and plans.

One group of school officials did him one better.

About an hour before the governor’s announcement, a group of school administrators from across the state talked about a possible framework for a new school finance system that would create an equal property tax for all school districts and eliminate the local option budget.

“In essence, it’s just moving everything over to the general fund with that flat property tax for everybody in the state,” said Jim Freeman, former chief financial officer of the Wichita school district. He presented the plan to more than 100 school administrators at a meeting in Topeka.

The framework is still in flux, Freeman said. The school officials want input that will help create a better plan for state schools.

“These are just concepts,” he said. “This is not a done document.”

Brownback said in a news conference that he’s optimistic that input like the school administrators’ plan will help the Legislature develop a new school finance formula in 2017.

“That’s the sort of discussion we ought to have and that we ought to hear about,” the governor said.

What Brownback wants the new school finance system to look like wasn’t apparent. For now, he said, he has an open mind.

“Building a new school funding system is a very difficult task,” he said. “It needs a broad scale of input to it. We’re trying to get that process started well ahead of the legislative session.”

Brownback’s administration has been criticized in recent months for how it’s handled money for schools. The governor is also contending with a lawsuit against the state, Gannon. v. Kansas, that could play a large role in what a new school finance model looks like.

A rare special legislative session in June helped satisfy one part of that lawsuit, dealing with equity. Lawmakers’ $38 million solution was described as a stopgap measure to keep schools open past the end of June.

The larger part of the lawsuit, over the adequacy of funding, is set to begin oral arguments Sept. 21 in front of the state Supreme Court.

Education advocates have said in recent weeks that funding issues could hurt the state’s education system. A recent report from the Kansas Association of School Boards ranked Kansas as the 10th-best state in the country in education, but also noted that the rank could soon fall. Stagnant teacher salaries and low funding per student are causes for concern, according to the report.

The block grant system that replaced the old school funding formula earlier in Brownback’s administration expires in 2017.

The administrators’ sketch of a plan that was discussed Wednesday is one of the first new ideas that has been made public.

Several Johnson County leaders said they were uncertain about this latest proposal. Blue Valley Superintendent Todd White said he’d have to look into it further.

“What we have in front of us today is some radical change from what we’ve known,” White said.

And Rep. Barbara Bollier of Mission Hills, a moderate Republican running for the state Senate, said she wasn’t supportive of the plan based on her first impression.

“That is absolutely the opposite of what I’m looking for,” Bollier said. “I’m looking for more local control.”

But no plans are fully formed on paper yet. And Brownback said Kansans have until Nov. 30 to email to share their thoughts.

“I think this is a good moment,” Brownback said. “You’re going into a fall election cycle where this will likely be one of the key topics discussed.”

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw