Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to overhaul how Kansas finances its public schools has left educators and state legislators wondering whether some school districts will be able to pay for new equipment, keep up with repairs or put up new buildings.
They’re concerned that the plan doesn’t earmark state funds to supplement the local property tax revenue that districts raise to finance equipment and repairs. They’re also nervous about statements from the administration that it wants to stop having the state contribute to the annual payments when some districts issue bonds to finance repair or construction projects.
Brownback and his top aides have said the plan will simplify the state’s school funding formula, distribute dollars more fairly and prevent future lawsuits after the changes take effect with the 2013-14 school year. His policy director, Landon Fulmer, also has said the governor remains flexible in resolving some issues, including how much the state will help pay for equipment, repairs and new construction.
Some officials, like Iola school superintendent Brian Pekarek, say there’s too much uncertainty as they examine Brownback’s proposals. The Iola district, with about 1,300 students about 100 miles southwest of the Kansas City area, has the state’s oldest high school and faces questions about renovating or replacing the 98-year-old building, as well as four other aging schools.
“I don’t know what this means,” Pekarek said of Brownback’s plan. “We’re not on that solid-rock foundation that we had.”
Brownback’s plan would scrap a two-decade-old practice of linking some of districts’ spending authority to the number of students at risk of failing or the number who don’t speak English well. It also would remove the state’s limits on local school boards’ power to raise property taxes.
The plan promises that none of the state’s 286 districts would see their state funding decrease during the 2013-14 school year, and 182 districts would see funding increase by up to 6 percent. A majority of those gaining dollars have fewer than 500 students, but Iola is on the list, due an additional 3.2 percent in aid.
Brownback’s proposal wouldn’t resume the state’s capital-outlay aid to school districts. The money supplements local property tax revenue raised for equipment and repairs and is distributed so that a larger share goes to poor districts. Such aid exceeded $22 million for 2008-09, but the state ended it during the recession.
The plan also doesn’t assume that the state will pick up part of the cost of bond payments for poor districts in the future, though commitments involving existing debt will be honored. Kansas law puts the state on the hook for more than 60 percent of the payments on new bonds in the poorest school districts.
“There are just school districts who would never have enough put away to construct a new school to replace one that’s falling down,” said state Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the budget-writing Senate Ways and Means Committee. “The fact that it was just left out completely is a major concern.”
The cost of the commitment on bond payments has jumped 82 percent in the past six years and is projected at nearly $105 million for the current school year.
Fulmer told the Senate Ways and Means Committee recently there is a concern that some districts may have “overbuilt.” Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said the governor wants to make sure that a higher percentage of dollars are spent on instruction.
House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said: “Obviously, we have had some concern over the years that many capital projects have been built solely on the argument that the state will pay part of it.”
Still, Fulmer said, the governor is open to alternatives, such as having the state review a district’s needs before it can ask voters to approve bonds.
House Education Committee Chairman Clay Aurand, R-Courtland, doesn’t see legislators cutting off future payments but said the issue is worth examining.
“There’s probably something between nothing and what we’re doing now,” he said.
Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said eliminating funding for equipment, repairs and bond payments could force districts to rely more heavily on property taxes and discourage them from raising levies again if state aid proves inadequate for general operations.
Some educators already have criticized Brownback’s plan for, in their view, basing future state aid payments on current amounts, after the state cut its base aid per student by nearly 6 percent this year to help balance its budget.
“Buildings and technology need to be available,” Tallman said.