Brownback plan could change how schools are funded

The governor’s school finance plan would allow residents to vote on countywide sales taxes and increased property taxes to help pay for schools. It also would provide new avenues to grant money for such things as innovative teaching methods.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s policy director, Landon Fulmer, gave a conceptual outline of the plan to the State Board of Education on Tuesday. But with no numbers attached, it remained too vague for board members or school representatives to endorse or oppose. Some did express skepticism that poor districts would be able to raise enough money to keep up with wealthy ones.

Fulmer promised the board that Gov. Sam Brownback won’t seek to cut state spending on schools or to let wealthy districts get far ahead of poorer ones as the state tries to reform how it distributes $3 billion in aid to 283 school districts.

“We’re trying to create a flexible formula here that has multiple options for the finance of education,” he said. “We’re trying to meet and attain that goal of suitable finance of education that’s in the (state) constitution.”

John Robb, a Newton lawyer representing 60 school districts in a lawsuit against the state, said the plan to use more local funding goes against existing law.

“We tried that lawsuit 30 years ago. It’s pretty clear under the law that it’s a statewide obligation, not a local obligation,” he said. “We’re trying to set the clock back 30 years and I don’t think the courts will stand for that for a minute. I’m a little miffed at why we’re even pursuing this.”

Under Brownback’s plan, schools would get a per-student payment set by the Legislature. The proposal would set a 15-mill statewide property tax levy, down from the current 20 mills, and disburse the money to make up for inequities in districts with low property values.

Local school boards would still be able to raise or lower local mill levies, and the amount no longer would be capped by state law. Block grants would be created to help districts with high poverty rates and sparsely populated areas that have higher per-student costs, as well as to encourage innovative approaches to teaching and to technical and career education.

Representatives for the Wichita and Andover school districts said they liked a hold-harmless provision of the proposal that would ensure districts get what they currently receive per pupil while the state moves to a new formula.

But Diane Gjerstad, the lobbyist for the Wichita school district, noted that provision comes after major cuts.

“It’s a hold harmless after $50 million in operating cuts for Wichita,” she said. “So hold harmless is in the eye of the beholder. I think most school districts are going to feel like they still have substantial cuts.”

Andover superintendent Mark Evans said his district has cut $4 million out of its budget in the last three years.

Gjerstad also said she liked Fulmer’s suggestion to move to a two-year budgeting cycle, which could provide for better planning as the state eyes new ways to assess students.

But questions remain about the rest of the plan, Evans said.

“There’s a whole lot of concepts we don’t know the definitives on,” he said. “Hopefully as we start to get more details, then we’re going to know a lot more about how it impacts our specific districts.”

Everyone is awaiting numbers.

Walt Chappell, who represents the Wichita area on the state board, said the current formula has been around since 1992 and doesn’t work with modern education and needs.

“I’m sure the devil is in the details,” he said.

He questioned how the state could maintain funding through the hold harmless provision and still have money left for block grants. And he said sales and property taxes rise and fall and districts need some predictability in budgeting.

Fulmer said a two-year budget cycle could help and that Brownback has made education a clear priority. But he acknowledged future legislatures, natural disasters and other things could affect the flow of revenue.

Chappell noted discussion statewide about eliminating or reducing income taxes, which would reduce the amount in the state’s general fund. “I’m very concerned,” he said.

Fulmer said he couldn’t divulge too many details of the tax plan, but he said it wouldn’t slash education spending. Brownback has said it would be revenue neutral.

“It’s easy for me to stand here and tell you that it will all be clear in two months,” he said. “But it will.”

Chappell said there are a lot of loose ends to deal with just two months before the legislative session. Legislators would have to approve the plan.

“When you have less income tax and you have less property tax and you have less sales tax — those three sources of revenue are down — and you still have kids to teach, we’ve got a major problem.”

He said more detail is needed.

Fulmer is expected to return to the State Board of Education next month with more specifics.

Robb, the Newton attorney, said what the state needs to do is fund the school finance formula lawmakers approved in 2005, after a Supreme Court ruling.

“The formula’s not broken,” he said, “They’re just not funding the formula.”