The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

December 18, 2011

New school funding plan for Kansas draws skeptics

BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. — Some Southeast Kansas school superintendents said that while they are trying to keep an open mind about Gov. Sam Brownback’s new school funding plan, they are skeptical.

Several area schools would see an increase in funding under the plan; others would remain the same.

Brownback says his education funding plan will end lawsuits currently pending over how Kansas finances public education, but others aren’t so sure. Kansas enacted its current school finance formula in 1992, in response to a lawsuit then. The state revised the formula in 2005 and 2006, also in response to lawsuits, with the Kansas Supreme Court mandating large increases in aid to public schools.

The Supreme Court’s rulings in 2005 and 2006 said funding must be tied to the actual costs of providing a suitable education, leading to the $4,492 target that was set for state aid per student.

But when the recession began in 2008, Brownback successfully pushed legislators to cut base state aid per pupil to help balance the state budget. It’s now $3,780 per pupil, more than $700 short of the $4,492 Kansas law sets as the goal.

Brownback’s proposal, which would start in the 2013-14 school year if it’s approved by legislators, would reset the base per-pupil state funding amount to $4,492.

Weight loss

In exchange, the formula eliminates “weighting,” which provides additional funds based on such things as the number of pupils who don’t speak English and the number of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Critics said Brownback’s plan fails to acknowledge that some students, such as immigrants with poor mastery of English, require additional resources.

“There’s no point in saying, gee whiz, we’re going back to the statutory $4,492, because it doesn’t involve the weights,” said State Board of Education member Sue Storm, an Overland Park Democrat. “That $4,492 is not nearly as much as it appears.”

But State Board of Education member Ken Willard said Brownback’s proposal “is a whole lot more understandable” than the current formula. Brownback said his plan is constitutional because it sets base state aid for each school district at $4,492 per student — as set forth in state law.

Brownback’s plan takes money from a statewide property tax, projected at $538 million for the 2013-14 school year, and distributes it based on each district’s property wealth, with poorer districts getting a larger share.

His plan also would remove a cap on local school boards’ ability to raise property taxes.

“I want to see this done by legislation, not the litigation,” Brownback said last week.

Brownback’s administration has made much of its promise that no district will see its state aid decrease for 2013-14. Under his plan, 182 districts would see their base aid increase by a total of $45 million. More than half have fewer than 500 students; none of the 33 largest districts are included.  

Although none of the districts in Southeast Kansas would see a decline in state funding, some won’t see any increase, either.

Under the proposal, the Baxter Springs School District would receive $438,018 more money from the state in the first year; Galena would receive $385,631 more; Riverton would receive $395,272 more; while Columbus would receive no additional money.

In Crawford County, the Frontenac School District would receive $385,908 more from the state; Girard would receive $467,549 more; while Pittsburg wouldn’t receive any additional state funding.

Destry Brown, superintendent of Pittsburg Community Schools, said it appears the plan would come “with a lot of inequities.”

He added, “There are a lot of unanswered questions and not a lot of information out there. But I do know that no district with more than 2,250 kids ends up a winner, though some small districts would be helped.”

Funding at issue

Baxter Springs Superintendent Dennis Burke said he takes issue with a statement Brownback also released when he announced his proposal. In it, Brownback said the current formula was broken and his plan would end a “cycle of litigation.”

“The reason it’s in court is because they never funded it adequately,” Burke said, referring to the State Legislature. “That makes us sound like petulant children. I have a little bit of an issue when he says the current formula is broken. Had it been funded, no district would be in court.”

While taking issue with the governor’s characterization of the issue, Burke said the governor’s plan is worth looking at, though now there are few details. He said the formula the governor used to arrive at his numbers isn’t clear. He said he also feared how removing the cap on property taxes would affect wealthy school districts.

“We are very concerned that a ZIP code determines how well a kid gets educated,” Burke said.

Nevertheless, he said he would keep an open mind. He also said he was sure it would be tweaked in the Legislature.

‘Grave concerns’

Galena Superintendent Brian Smith said he needs more information, too, but already there is enough detail to raise red flags.

“I have some very grave concerns,” Smith said.

He said the governor’s plan appears to try to take the heat off the Legislature to fund schools and places the burden on local school boards.

“We’ll probably be in good shape for a year or so, but we’ll struggle without raising property taxes” in future years, Smith said.

He said the Kansas Constitution gives the Legislature the responsibility to fund schools and to fund them equally. He said poor districts such as Galena, with already high property taxes, could suffer under the new formula.

Smith said there’s nothing wrong with the current school funding formula that adequate funding wouldn’t solve. He said Galena has held off on joining lawsuits against the state because of the need for everyone to sacrifice during a down economy.

State Rep. Terry Calloway, R-Pittsburg, had another view about lifting the local cap on property taxes for schools.

“It gives more local control to fund the school districts,” Calloway said. “If local school boards want to approve more funding, they have the power to do that. If local communities want to spend more money, that’s a great thing. They can do it.”

Calloway said he hasn’t fully studied the proposal and won’t say if he supports it. He said the governor is taking a step in the right direction.

“I’m really glad that Brownback is taking the initiative to do something more for the schools than has been done in the past,” Calloway said.

State Rep. Doug Gatewood, D-Columbus, said Brownback’s proposal looks considerably different from what had been discussed previously.

“What I’ve seen on it so far in the proposal is to hold them (school districts) harmless initially,” Gatewood said. “What happens after that is certainly anybody’s guess.”

He also said he was concerned that educators weren’t consulted.

“It’s not been vetted with the stakeholders, with the parties involved,” he said. “That always concerns me.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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