Politics & Government

Chair of Kansas House panel disputes amount needed to fix school funding

How legislators can close school funding gaps identified by the Supreme Court – and how much they must spend to do so – continued to dominate conversations at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Senate leaders unveiled a plan that would allocate $134 million to close disparities in local option budget and capital outlay funds, the two areas identified as inequitable by the court March 7.

In the House, the chairman charged with overseeing the school finance fix disputed that legislators need to spend a specific amount of money to address the inequities.

And legislators in both chambers eyed school transportation as one area money could be shifted from to help solve the problem.

The Legislature faces a July 1 deadline to close funding disparities between school districts.

The Department of Education and the nonpartisan Kansas Legislative Research Department have calculated that $129 million is needed to do that.

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, said Monday that the House plan, House Bill 2774, would result in $129 million for to fix inqualities in school funding. It changes statutes to free up some money, but does not identify all the sources of the money.

But at the first meeting on the bill Wednesday, Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, disputed that any specific dollar amount is needed to fix inequity.

“I’ll just say this now. Let me say this publicly. The court didn’t tell us how much money to do. They said equalize,” Rhoades said. “I think it’s easy for us to say just spend the money and get out of town. … I don’t think that’s necessarily appropriate.”

He said the dollar figures being thrown out were inaccurate. After the meeting, he was asked about Vickrey’s statement to reporters Monday that the bill would appropriate $129 million.

“I know the comment he made. I’m saying, what did the court ask us to do?” Rhoades said.

The court did not mandate that the Legislature equalize funds between districts, but it said doing so would eliminate the need for further court action on the matter.

Rhoades still disputed that a specific figure has been determined. “I’m saying I don’t think we know what the dollar figure is,” he said.

Rachel Whitten, spokeswoman for House Speaker Ray Merrick, later said that $129 million “is just a starting point. Members are welcome to make adjustments either direction in committee or on the floor.”

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said Wednesday afternoon that the dollar figure should not be up for debate at this point.

“I think those who don’t believe that’s what’s necessary are really not listening to reality,” Davis said.

Senate’s plan

Senate leaders reviewed their plan in a Senate Republican caucus meeting; they have not introduced a bill yet.

They said they have already identified areas where they think extra money can be freed up to close gaps. They would also provide $77.5 million in new funding.

“We want to go in there and we want to fix the problem,” Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said.

Democrats have warned that taking money from other areas in the education budget will create new problems. But Republicans say there are places in the budget that can be cut without detriment to students.

“I know it’s kind of got a little pushback on it,” Bruce said. “You’ll probably get more pushback on it. But these are weightings that if we adjust, we have a high degree of certainty to pass court muster.”

Weightings refer to the money districts receive for specific needs.

The Senate leaders’ plan would would eliminate a weighting for virtual education, freeing up about $14.4 million. They also would eliminate a weighting for non-proficient students, saving $4.9 million.

They would keep but alter weightings for transportation and for high-density districts, which have large numbers of at-risk students.

Senate leaders would raise the threshold of at-risk students needed for a district to qualify from 35 percent to 45 percent of the student population. This would yield another $7.2 million.

Transportation funds

Transportation is an area where both House and Senate leaders think they can find additional money.

A 2006 audit found mathematical errors in the court’s transportation funding formula that caused the state to spend an extra $14 million on transportation, Scott Frank, a legislative post auditor, told the Appropriations Committee at the morning meeting.

Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate want to fix those errors to free up more funds. Senate leadership estimates the change would yield $16.5 million in savings.

Rep. Jerry Henry, D-Cummings, expressed concern that this change could have a huge impact for rural districts. He asked Frank if there would be winners and losers. Frank said all districts would lose money in this area.

The Wichita school district would lose more than $1 million to its transportation budget with this change, according to the state Department of Education.

Rhoades said it was fairer to use this money elsewhere in the budget. The House bill also caps the age of at-risk students at 19; under current law, districts can receive funding for at-risk students for 21-year-olds enrolled in GED programs.

Senate leaders call for that same change to free up $3.5 million and also plan to cut $10 million from the budget for new facilities.

After freeing up extra money, the Senate leaders’ plan would take the remaining funds needed from the state general fund.

Davis, the likely Democratic nominee for governor, said shifting money between pots could lead to further court action. He touted a Democratic plan that allocates $129 million straight from the general fund.

“Robbing Peter to pay Paul, picking money out of one bucket of school funding and putting into another one, is just not the way to go about this,” Davis said.

The Senate leaders’ plan also authorizes an increase in districts’ local option budget to ensure that money goes to classrooms in each district. That’s how they arrived at the figure of $134 million. Without the additional $5 million, not every district would see more money for classrooms, Bruce said. But he said this plan makes sure they will.

“It’s a little awkward if we spent $130 million and all I got is this lousy T-shirt,” Bruce said.

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