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Some take issue with pro-Brownback ad, numbers on classroom spending

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Saturday, April 26, 2014, at 5:47 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 30, 2014, at 11:54 a.m.

Television ads praising Gov. Sam Brownback’s support of education funding overstate how much new spending is going to classrooms.

Even before Brownback signed the school finance bill into law, Kansans were seeing an ad that applauded the governor for directing $73 million more to classrooms and $78 million to property tax relief. He used those same figures Monday when he signed the bill.

But new spending in classrooms is likely to be half that amount, or $36 million, according to an April 17 analysis by the Department of Education. The analysis puts property tax relief higher, at $84 million.

The ad is paid for by Roadmap Solutions Inc., a political organization set up to support Brownback and other conservatives and that is chaired by the governor’s former chief of staff, David Kensinger.

Jon Hummel, the governor’s interim budget director, said last week that it was disappointing to find out that less money would be going to school aid than the governor and legislators initially thought.

He said the $73 million figure was based on an April 6 analysis, which legislators reviewed before voting on the bill, that calculates $48 million in increased classroom aid and $25 million in capital building money.

The April 17 analysis reflects changes legislators made at the end of negotiations on the bill that prohibit districts from counting students enrolled in virtual schools and nonproficient students in calculating their local option budgets, said Dale Dennis, the deputy secretary of education.

Local option funding comes from local property taxes and is based on the number of students in a district.

The Supreme Court ordered the state to equalize local option money between districts with increased state aid. Part of that money will go toward relieving local property taxes; the amount depends on how much of its budget a district gets from LOB funds.

Both projections assume that every school district in the state will choose to increase its local option budget to the maximum amount allowed without a public vote so that it can accept the increased funding. Districts that do not do that will see their additional funding instead go to property tax relief.

Hummel reiterated that the law gives districts flexibility to make this decision.

The increased money that districts would receive from making those changes would come partially from state and partially from local property tax revenue, Hummel confirmed.

That means the $73 million in the ad includes $23 million in local property tax dollars, based on the April 6 projections.

‘They’ve inflated the number’

The $25 million in capital building funds remains consistent in both analyses. But this money would go toward building maintenance and capital improvement projects instead of the classroom, according to statute.

The ad specifically talks about money going to the classroom.

“That’s more money in the classroom and more money in the property taxpayers’ pocket, paid for with spending cuts and a growing economy. Everybody talks about it. Kansas got it done,” an off-screen narrator says while images of the governor and students in classrooms flicker on the screen.

But only the $36 million in LOB money would be going to classroom aid. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the ad intentionally misrepresents the amount of money going to the classroom.

“Yea, $36 million, that’s half of what they’re claiming in that ad,” Hensley said, looking over the most recent analysis. “So they’ve inflated the number. And you have to take Department of Education numbers as the gospel truth, really. This is just a political spin that they’ve got on a TV ad for his campaign.”

Kensinger defended the ad in an e-mail Wednesday.

“I’d say the precise figures will be known once districts and voters have their say, but this is the best data we have available now and a good-faith representation,” he said. “If you have a better way of describing the school finance formula in 28.5 seconds, I’m all ears.”

The ad cites the Kansas Department of Education as its source.

But Dennis, who oversees school finance for the department, said he was unsure of how Roadmap made its calculations. “I try to stay away from those spins,” he said with a laugh.

The ad also says that the extra education dollars have come partly from economic growth. The state’s revenue is projected to drop by 6 percent in 2014 and grow by 0.5 percent the following year. The new education spending will be covered by cuts elsewhere in the budget and by reserve funds.

Timing of decision

During Monday’s signing ceremony, the governor said he had not decided before this past week whether to sign the bill, which also contained some controversial changes in education policy. The ad started playing on television stations at least a week before that.

The ad repeatedly says, “We got it done.” Hensley contended that this meant either the ad was disingenuous or the governor was in his public statements.

“You can’t claim that we got it done before the fact,” he said. “This says, ‘We got it done.’ He’s giving other information, saying, ‘I haven’t decided whether I’m going to sign the bill or not.’ You see what I’m saying?”

Kensinger said that because any disputes were over policies in the bill, such as eliminating mandatory hearings before a public school teacher can be fired, and not over the financial parts of the bill, Roadmap decided to proceed with airing the ad.

“Since that part was agreed to and there was a consensus for some bill to pass, we felt confident in going forward talking about those provisions,” he said in an e-mail.

The end of the ad instructs Kansans to call a constituent services number and thank Brownback for “his leadership in getting more dollars to the classroom and reducing property taxes.”

The new spending comes after a Supreme Court order to fix gaps in school funding.

“He’s had three and a half years to lead on public education, and he has just refused to do so,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, the likely Democratic nominee for governor. “And suddenly when he’s faced with a tough re-election challenge, he’s trying to portray himself as being a supporter of public education, and I just don’t think people are going to fall for it.”

Republicans say Davis, who voted against the bill, is in no position to criticize the governor on this issue.

“Paul Davis voted against millions of dollars for schools and millions of dollars in property tax relief for Kansas taxpayers,” said Mark Dugan, Brownback’s campaign manager.

Davis and other Democrats said they supported the financial provisions in the bill but voted against it because conservative Republicans added new policies, including one that ends mandatory hearings before experienced teachers can be fired.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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