Fast-tracking Kansas bill poses a new threat to schools and property owners

A new budget-cutting bill in Topeka could squeeze classrooms in Shawnee Mission and other Kansas districts.
A new budget-cutting bill in Topeka could squeeze classrooms in Shawnee Mission and other Kansas districts. The Kansas City Star

Ominous predictions that schools and local property owners would be forced to pay for the reckless tax cuts enacted by the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback are starting to play out.

The state Senate Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to hear testimony next week on a bill that would recalculate the money the state gives annually to most school districts to equalize disparities in wealth among local tax bases.

Nearly all of the state’s school districts would receive less money than anticipated this year, and Johnson County districts would get hit with 28 percent of the overall $39 million worth of cuts.

In future years, school districts could adjust to the recalculated formula called for in Senate Bill 71 by raising their mill levies. But that would mean higher property taxes in some jurisdictions, including some of the Johnson County districts that just won voter approval to raise more funds from local taxpayers.

Coming on the heels of Gov. Sam Brownback’s suggestion that school districts — instead of the state — begin paying for increases in teacher pensions, this latest bill indicates a willingness to plug holes in the distressed Kansas budget by taking money from elementary and secondary education.

That destructive strategy seems destined to undermine one of Kansas’ most valuable assets — its public schools — and cause more friction with the courts.

The bill does not list a sponsor, but it reportedly was initiated by Republican Sen. Ty Masterson of Andover, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. It was introduced on Tuesday and is scheduled for a hearing and possible committee vote next week, the swiftness indicating that legislative leaders have given it a high priority.

The pot of money in question — supplemental general state aid — is one of the issues the Kansas Supreme Court dealt with in a ruling last spring. It is money the state allocates to subsidize districts with less property wealth than others. For several years, the Legislature had budgeted less than its own formula decrees.

Prompted by the court ruling, the Legislature agreed last session to give schools an additional $130 million in equalization funds, which was supposed to make up for the formula shortfall. But as it turned out, the calculation was underestimated by about $39 million. Senate Bill 71 aims to resolve the issue by rewriting the formula, meaning a permanent cut for most school districts.

Should the bill become law, districts in Johnson County would see a total of $11 million cut from their budgets this year. Shawnee Mission would lose $4.2 million, Blue Valley $3.3 million and Olathe $2.6 million. De Soto, Gardner Edgerton and Spring Hill would see smaller but still significant losses. The Kansas City, Kan., School District would have to make do with about $1 million less.

Districts could get that money back next year by raising their mill levies. But property taxes in many areas of Kansas are already onerous.

Senate Bill 71 was introduced the same day that five Johnson County school districts learned that voters had resoundingly approved requests to increase local funding from 31 to 33 percent of their general funds.

The districts — Shawnee Mission, Olathe, Blue Valley, De Soto and Gardner Edgerton — had told voters that “based on current known factors” the increase in local option funding would not mean higher property taxes.

That claim was accurate. District administrators had no idea legislation was in the works to undermine them.

If passed, the Senate bill would wipe out most or all of the gains that the school districts will receive by continuing their local funding increases. It would force them to either make more cuts or break faith with voters by raising mill levies.

That’s not fair to students, school leaders or taxpayers. The sooner Senate Bill 71 gets derailed, the better.