Politics & Government

April 2, 2014

Kansas Senate to debate school-finance fix; House plan stalls

The Senate is moving forward with a possible school-finance fix Thursday, but the House is not.

The Senate is moving forward with a possible school-finance fix Thursday, but the House is not.

Senators are scheduled to debate and vote Thursday night on a plan that would use a combination of new money and cuts to address school funding inequities identified by the Supreme Court.

The House had planned to do the same. But its bill has stalled while leaders sort out issues regarding taking money from KPERS and from the sale of state buildings to help pay for a school fix.

The Senate plan would require more than $81 million in new education funding to address inequities identified by the court in capital outlay and local option budget funds.

The House plan now calls for about $94 million in additional money, but that is likely to change, said Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, the newly appointed chair of the House Appropriations Committee, which is shepherding the House bill.

Both bills have drawn criticism from a variety of sources.

Neither will work very well for the Wichita school district, said Diane Gjerstad, the district’s lobbyist.

“We lose money under the Senate plan,” she said. “The House plan we would gain some money, but we’re going to lose for the very kids that it takes more to educate, students who are at-risk. … And that is really difficult for us,” she said Wednesday, looking at an analysis from the Department of Education.

Both bills would give the Wichita district about $3.5 million in capital outlay, money that could be used to upgrade and maintain facilities but could not go toward daily instruction.

And each would increase base state aid by $14 per student.

The House plan would provide about $3.85 million in additional classroom funds and about $10.15 million in property tax relief for Wichitans.

But it also include a cut of more than $748,000 to the district’s at-risk funding, which Gjerstad called untenable.

“Statewide it’s a $3.5 million loss. Wichita alone is $750,000 of that loss. It is absolutely disproportionate. … The problem with this bill is that it’s still taking money away from the districts that have great need,” she said.

All told, the House plan would give the district about $2.86 million more for daily operations.

Suellentrop said that his committee would re-examine at-risk funding and might make other changes as well.

The Senate plan could be even more problematic for the Wichita district, Gjerstad said.

The House changed the calculation of local option budget money – local property taxes used to provide funding beyond the state base funding – to steer money into the classroom. The Senate’s bill doesn’t include this provision.

Districts like Wichita that already receive a maximum 30 percent of their funding through the local option budget wouldn’t see an impact in the classroom, Deputy Commissioner of Education Dale Dennis said in a phone call.

That means the $11.9 million the Senate bill allocates for Wichita’s local option budget would be primarily used for property tax relief. At the same time, the bill comes with $1.65 million in reductions to district funding.

The Senate bill does permit districts to hold elections to increase the local option budget to 33 percent, so that could potentially steer more money to the classroom.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said Wichita benefits over $10 million from this plan and voters will have the power to decide how to use that money.

“We have heard constantly for decades from our schools that voters overwhelmingly support putting more money in schools. If voters overwhelmingly support putting more money in schools, then they will pass the elections,” he said. But if voters would prefer property tax relief instead, he said, they would get to make that choice.

The House plan would allow a mail-in vote to increase the LOB.

Fewer reforms than conservatives hoped

Neither plan has as many policy reforms as conservatives would have liked.

Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, tried but failed to attach school choice provisions to the House plan.

Craig Gabel, a tea party activist from Wichita, said he was confident that there are enough conservative votes to kill the House bill in its current form.

Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, said Wednesday night that he expected tweaks to the bill to help satisfy those concerns.

Kelley and Rep. Amanda Grosserode, R-Lenexa, spent some of Wednesday night in the revisor’s office, where bills are written. When she emerged, she would not be specific but said she had not given up on the issue of school choice.

Her previous amendments would have expanded charter schools and granted tax breaks to corporations that donate to private school scholarship funds.

On the Senate side, Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, and Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiwaitha, succeeded in including a provision that would grant $1,000 in property tax relief to families who either home school or send their child to private school. If the family has multiple children being educated outside the public school system, they could receive a maximum of $2,500.

Senate leaders approached this provision cautiously. It was attached in committee without an estimate of its cost.

“Certainly we want to provide property tax relief to working families,” King said Wednesday morning. “...I think we have to know the cost of the measure before we decide.”

Tom Krebs, spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said this piece could decrease resources for public schools.

“A proposal to cut property taxes for home schoolers, private schoolers is tantamount to a voucher. … And consequently they pose a grave risk to public schools,” he said.

Uphill battle for House plan

The House plan might face an uphill battle to get passed.

Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, voted for it to pass out of the committee Tuesday night, but he said Wednesday he still didn’t love it.

He joked that when nobody’s happy, that’s a sign of good legislation. But he couldn’t predict if it could pass the House as a whole at this point.

“There’s a lot of people that are all over the place. It’s just really hard to read,” he said. “I wish I could tell you we’re close, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Democrats have repeatedly called for the passage of a clean bill that fixes the equity issue without making any adjustments to the formula or any other policy changes.

Moderate Republicans have also expressed concerns. Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, worried that if the Legislature makes too many changes to the funding formula, then it might not satisfy the court’s requirement to fix equity.

“We’re losing sight of the ultimate goal, which is to resolve the legal battle that the state’s been engaged in,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, told Republicans on Wednesday that they had to have a school finance bill passed before leaving Topeka this week for a three-week break. The Senate might accomplish that Thursday night.

But over on the House side, Suellentrop could not say when the House bill would be ready for debate and a vote.

His committee first must address a part of the plan that calls for taking money from KPERS to help pay for the new school spending. That would conflict with an earlier court decision, Suellentrop said.

And it must decide whether the to advance a bill regarding the sale, and possible demolition, of state office buildings in Topeka. Proceeds from the sale might help with school funding.

Lawmakers also plan to attend the funeral of Diane Thimesch, wife of Rep. Jack Thimesch, R-Cunningham, on Thursday.

Suellentrop said the House will not be ready with its bill by Thursday night. He also said legislators might be working on Saturday.

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