Eagle editorial: School aid no windfall

04/11/2014 5:38 PM

08/08/2014 10:23 AM

Though the school-funding bill that passed the Legislature last weekend costs more than $130 million, it is not a huge windfall for many school districts, including Wichita. More than half of that total goes to lowering local property taxes, not boosting school district budgets.

That’s not a knock on the Legislature, which did plenty of other things to criticize – such as eliminating due-process rights for public school teachers. Rather, it reflects the complicated formulas used to try to equalize school funding across the state – and how local communities have been paying higher property taxes to cover for state funding cuts.

If Gov. Sam Brownback signs the bill into law, the state will spend at least $94 million to help equalize local option budgets between wealthy and poorer school districts. But because the LOB percent total is capped, all that would change for many districts is how the LOB funding is divided between the state and districts – not the total funding.

For example, Wichita would receive at least $12 million in additional LOB state aid next year, according to Kansas State Department of Education estimates. But because Wichita’s LOB is at the cap and can’t increase without a public vote, Wichita would have to reduce its school property taxes to offset that state money.

The Legislature did make some accounting adjustments to help districts keep some of the funding. For example, the bill allows local option budgets to be calculated using an artificial, inflated base state aid amount. Assuming Wichita’s LOB stays at its current percent, this change would enable the Wichita district to retain about $1.7 million in increased LOB funding, though only for the next two years.

The bill also includes $25 million to equalize capital-outlay funds. Wichita would receive $3.5 million of that aid, and it has the ability to increase its local capital-outlay mill levy. But that money could be used only on capital projects, facility maintenance and technology, not for teacher salaries.

Separate from the equity fixes, school districts also would receive a $14-per-pupil increase in state base aid, which was already planned. Wichita’s increase totals about $1 million.

But to help pay for the various funding increases, the Legislature made several changes that would reduce other funding to many school districts. For example, it eliminated extra funding for at-risk students who aren’t full time, who are older than 19 or who are not eligible for the federal free-lunch program. It also excluded virtual school state aid from LOB calculations.

The at-risk changes cost Wichita about $1.1 million. The virtual school change costs Wichita about $300,000.

Though the exact budget totals could change, the net effect of the increased LOB funding and state base aid, minus the various funding cuts, is that Wichita may receive about $1.6 million in additional operating budget money next year, plus an additional $3.5 million for capital projects. Meanwhile, property owners in the Wichita district may receive about $10 million in tax relief.

Every little bit helps as schools struggle to pay their bills. But for a district the size of Wichita, that’s not much help.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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