Politics & Government

Republican leaders said to consider remaking Kansas school funding plan

Parents with children returning to Wichita schools can already go online to complete enrollment forms, see class schedules and pay enrollment fees.
Parents with children returning to Wichita schools can already go online to complete enrollment forms, see class schedules and pay enrollment fees. The Wichita Eagle

Leading Kansas Republicans doubt the state can afford additional school funding supported by Democratic Gov-elect Laura Kelly, raising the chances lawmakers will reopen a massive new education spending plan next year or even start over.

Top Republican lawmakers told a meeting of educators and others on Monday that the Legislature may have to build a new school funding plan, according to four individuals in the room. Lawmakers just approved a plan this spring to ramp up annual spending by $522 million over five years

The state Supreme Court largely signed off on the plan in June, but said lawmakers need to account for inflation. Adjusting for that could cost upwards of $90 million more a year.

Republican leaders are skeptical the state could pay for the change and say the funding plan may need to be changed instead. But Kelly has consistently said the state can afford it, setting up a potential early showdown with lawmakers.

Ahead of the January start to the legislative session, House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, met with leaders of the Blue Valley school district in Johnson County on Monday.

Participants in the meeting said they came away with the impression that Ryckman and Denning believe the Supreme Court’s demand for inflation money may force lawmakers to change the underlying school funding plan approved this spring, or potentially begin fresh.

“Both Ron and Jim Denning made it very clear that there’s a very good possibility that they would start from ground zero with a school funding formula, as opposed to putting in the inflationary factor,” Rep. Jan Kessinger, R-Overland Park, said.

Ryckman didn’t respond to a voicemail left Monday morning, and a spokesman didn’t immediately comment.

Denning said that Ryckman made a comment about starting over during the meeting. Denning said the remark was to the effect of saying that since lawmakers won’t be able to come up with the additional inflation funding wanted by attorneys for districts suing the state, that the Legislature may have to start over.

Kansas is projected to have an ending balance of more than $900 million at the end of the fiscal year in June, thanks in part to tax collections that continue to exceed expectations. But under currently projected spending and revenue levels, and assuming additional funding for schools, the state will have a negative ending balance of $145 million by 2022, according to figures from legislative researchers.

“What I told the group is that I don’t want to make a commitment that the state can’t fulfill. And you can put anything in statute to get out of town and then when the state can’t produce that kind of funding, then you get accused of breaking your promise,” Denning said when asked about his comments.

Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, said Ryckman implied that this year’s court ruling meant that the future funding that was passed is in doubt and that lawmakers “will have to essentially start over on school finance.”

Rep. Cindy Holscher, D-Olathe, said the room was quiet as Denning and Ryckman spoke.

“It’s just the new excuse to kick the can down the road and not to fully fund our public schools,” Holscher said.

Lawmakers will have to look at how to make school funding sustainable, said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita. He added that lawmakers will have to “look at everything and figure out how they can make that work.”

“Now we’re going to have to look and see how we can change it to make it work. The deal that was there last year probably is now off the table, I would say,” Hawkins said.

Kelly, who becomes governor on Jan. 14, is hopeful a years-long lawsuit over school funding can finally be brought to a close.

“She will put together a plan to invest in schools to end litigation while also balancing the budget. The governor-elect is confident that given the recent revenue reports, this will be possible,” Kelly spokeswoman Ashley All said.

Blue Valley School Board President Cindy Bowling said she was not available for comment. Other Blue Valley board members and district leaders were not able to be reached.

Passage of the $522 million school funding package in April marked a highlight of the 2018 session. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Republican, signed the bill and publicly embraced it.

But the June ruling from the Supreme Court that faulted the plan for not including inflation adjustments frustrated some lawmakers who believe they are spending more than enough on schools.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said that when more money is spent on K-12 education, “you starve all the other needs that state government has.”

“We have put the lion’s share of state income into one basket: K-12,” Wagle said shortly after the November election.

Rising frustrations have led to renewed talk of a constitutional amendment that would limit the Supreme Court’s ability to review overall funding levels for education. Supporters mounted an unsuccessful effort to pass a constitutional amendment this spring, but appear likely to try again in 2019.

If two-thirds of the House and the Senate approve an amendment, it goes to a statewide vote.

Contributing: Katy Bergen of The Star

Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.