Key Kansas lawmakers say deal on school funding plan close

Kansas Sen. Jeff King talked with senators in the rotunda of the Statehouse in Topeka on Thursday morning as work got underway on school financing.
Kansas Sen. Jeff King talked with senators in the rotunda of the Statehouse in Topeka on Thursday morning as work got underway on school financing.

Key Republican legislators said Wednesday that they’re close to an agreement with Kansas educators on a $38 million plan aimed at keeping public schools open and satisfying a court mandate to help poor districts.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. said the proposal is likely to shift existing state dollars to poor districts.

But an attorney representing four districts suing the state over education funding questioned whether the Kansas Supreme Court would accept such a plan.

The Republican-dominated Legislature convenes Thursday for a special session called by GOP Gov. Sam Brownback to address a Supreme Court ruling last month.

The justices said the state’s education funding system remains unfair to poor school districts and warned that schools might not reopen after June 30 if lawmakers don’t make further changes.

Masterson, from Andover, and Ryckman, from Olathe, have been negotiating this week with multiple school superintendents. Their districts include Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, two of the four suing the state. They also include the Blue Valley, Olathe and Shawnee Mission districts in Johnson County, which stand to lose state funds.

“I’m very optimistic,” Masterson said.

The state spends more than $4 billion a year on aid to its 286 school districts, and Brownback is pushing a plan to boost the total by $38 million to help poor districts. The idea has bipartisan support, but with the state facing ongoing budget problems, a key issue is paying for it.

Democratic leaders have suggested redirecting unused funds set aside for public schools’ online courses and tapping a special fund for districts’ emergency needs, such as large year-to-year increases in student numbers. Republicans also have talked about both as sources.

Masterson also said there’s been a discussion about redirecting a small percentage of all districts’ general aid for operating expenditures to help poor districts.

But John Robb, an attorney representing the four districts suing the state, said legislators shouldn’t redirect funds for general operations or emergency needs. He predicted the Supreme Court would “bounce” such a plan but would accept one boosting overall education funding by $38 million.

“They’re playing with fire,” Robb said. “They’re almost guaranteeing a shut-down and a second special session.”

Another complication has been a push from Johnson County officials for a $50 million plan with extra funds to ensure that no district has any funds redistributed to poorer ones.

Robb and legislators from other areas contend Johnson County districts could make up lost state dollars with small local property tax increases.

Ryckman said Johnson County superintendents have been “team players” in negotiations, without elaborating.

As for the plan, he said, “It needs to be what’s best for all kids.”

The state has been in and out of legal battles over education funding for decades, and the latest lawsuit was filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts. The Supreme Court has issued multiple rulings, and legislators have rewritten school finance laws three times in three years, most recently in March.