The Wichita school district would not see a penny more in state aid under a pair of school finance bills being weighed by Kansas lawmakers.
The district also would not see any less money.
House Bill 2740 and Senate Bill 515 seek to equalize funding among districts while ensuring that none sees a drop in overall funding. The bills add little new money. Lawmakers say they will satisfy a Supreme Court order to fix inequitable funding for schools and avoid a court-threatened closure of schools in July.
The legislation is “pretty close to budget-neutral,” said Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, House Appropriations chair. “It also does equalize the funds that are given in a way which should satisfy the courts so that the ultimate goal of keeping the schools open can be accomplished.”
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But some south-central Kansas school districts said the plan does not take into account previous funding cuts and does not really equalize funding for poorer districts.
Earlier, discarded proposals would have boosted funding for poorer districts while cutting it for richer districts. Wichita would have netted nearly $10 million more under a bill scrapped by the House last week.
The new bills “redefine equalization to fit current spending,” said Diane Gjerstad, a spokeswoman for the Wichita school district, one of four districts suing the state for more school funding. “Wichita lost state aid under the Block Grant, our property tax payers are paying higher taxes and our capital projects have suffered.”
The new bills spend about $2 million more statewide on education. The Wichita district’s lawyers and others earlier projected it would take $100 million in increased aid over two years to satisfy the Supreme Court’s ruling.
23 districts would get more funding
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, chair of the Senate budget committee, said school districts would have an opportunity to comment on the Senate bill at an 8 a.m. hearing Wednesday. He intends to have the bill advance out of committee Wednesday afternoon for a possible Senate floor vote on Thursday.
The House plans to do the same with an identical bill. Lawmakers are working to pass a funding fix this week before leaving on an April break.
Masterson said Education Commissioner Randy Watson and other education officials recommended Monday that lawmakers include a “hold-harmless” provision so no district would lose money when funding is equalized.
Johnson County lawmakers had bristled at earlier bills that would have reduced aid to their school districts and sent millions more to Wichita and other Sedgwick County districts.
The new proposal would result in a funding increase for 23 school districts statewide. Other districts would receive the same amount they were set to receive under the state’s block grant system, which was established last year in place of the old funding formula.
Derby and Mulvane would see an increase in funding, gaining about $87,000 and $191,000 respectively. All other Sedgwick County districts would see no impact.
“I think they’ll end up regretting they weren’t proponents of the prior bill,” Masterson said, referring to Wichita and other school districts that did not back previous attempts to address the court ruling.
“My primary role is to satisfy the court, so they don’t close the schools,” he said.
Calculating equalization aid
The proposal would change how the state calculates equalization aid, simplifying it, Ryckman said.
Under the old school finance formula, the state gave equalization aid to poor districts, which were unable to raise as much money from local property taxes as rich districts.
Districts that fell below the 81.2 percentile for average property valuation per pupil were eligible for aid. The amount bounced up and down each year based on a variety of factors.
The new plan would instead use a median valuation per pupil.
That would mean less equalization aid for most districts, including Wichita. But the districts wouldn’t lose any funding overall because of the hold-harmless provision.
Masterson said this is a court-approved method for equalizing capital outlay, one category of school aid that lawmakers must equalize under the court ruling. He said the court did not give any instructions.
Gov. Sam Brownback said he was watching lawmakers’ efforts closely. “These things take lots of twists and turns,” he said.
One thing that could make the latest plan attractive is that it does not spend as much as some other options.
“We’re in a tight budget,” Brownback said. “We need to address the court’s findings on equalization and there’s not a lot of resources to be able to do with it and that makes it difficult.”
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, was skeptical that this method would pass court muster.
“We take it away from one pot and put it in another pot,” Kelly said, shaking her head.