Kansas parents seek permission to pay more taxes for schools

02/18/2011 12:00 AM

02/18/2011 12:05 AM

MISSION — Parents in a suburban Kansas City school district where some homes cost $1 million or more have done as much as they can to raise money for their children's schools, including holding country club fundraisers to pay for elementary Spanish programs, counselors and nurses.

But with limits on what private money can be used for and state funding cuts forcing the closure of schools and increases in class size, the parents want a judge to toss out state property tax caps so they can pay more for their schools. Seventeen parents have filed a federal lawsuit thought to be the first of its kind in the nation. A hearing in the case is set for today.

School funding lawsuits have been filed in 45 states, but most of those ask the states to provide more money for education, said Molly Hunter, director of education justice at the Education Law Center in New Jersey. Kansas provides basic funding and extra money for such things as serving poor, rural and non-native English speaking students under a formula developed in response to a lawsuit filed about 20 years ago.

Parents in the Shawnee Mission School District say they agree the state should provide a minimum amount of money for education; they just want to pay more.

Diane Petrella, a 40-year-old music professor and mother of five in the upscale suburb of Leawood, said she can't afford private schools but she's willing to pay more for good public ones.

"It's disheartening," she said. "One of the things I looked for was a community that supports their schools, and they aren't being allowed to."

Before the state established a cap, voters in the Shawnee Mission district repeatedly agreed to raise their taxes to pay for schools. But critics say that while such generosity helped schools there, it hurt those in poor districts nearby.

New teachers would polish their skills in Kansas City, Kan., and then 150 to 200 of them would leave each year for Shawnee Mission and other suburban districts, where they received pay raises of $5,000 to $10,000, said David Smith, a spokesman for the Kansas City district. The cap helped the district narrow the salary gap and keep good teachers, Smith said.

Shawnee Mission parents are worried about losing teachers now. State budget cuts have forced the 28,000-student district to reduce its budget by $20 million over the past two years and cut nearly 100 teaching positions this year. Parents are worried about what will happen next because Gov. Sam Brownback and legislators don't expect to replace all of the nearly $200 million in federal funds that have been propping up aid to public schools but won't be renewed. Brownback has proposed cutting basic aid of about $4,000 per student by $232 for each child.

Shawnee Mission parents say that while they're willing to have their state taxes benefit all districts equally, they don't think limits on local taxes are fair. The district has said that if it loses more state money, its fourth- through eighth-graders could be stuffed into classes of 30 students.

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