Politics & Government

$92M or $363M? Schools group says Kansas governor’s funding plan isn’t enough

Five key points in Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s budget

Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed budget would leave Kansas with $686 million in the bank next year, while expanding Medicaid, increasing school funding and hiring scores of workers to help fix the state’s troubled foster care system.
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Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed budget would leave Kansas with $686 million in the bank next year, while expanding Medicaid, increasing school funding and hiring scores of workers to help fix the state’s troubled foster care system.

A plan to end a years-long court battle over school funding in Kansas is under threat after an influential group of school districts withdrew its support.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s $92 million plan isn’t enough, Schools for Fair Funding says. It wants hundreds of millions in new funding beyond what she has proposed.

The group represents several Kansas school districts, including Wichita and Kansas City, that are suing the state over funding. Its opposition to Kelly’s plan comes as a key Senate committee prepares to hold a hearing Wednesday.

At stake is how much more money schools across the state will receive over the next few years. But critics warn the increase Schools for Fair Funding seeks would force lawmakers to choose between education and other priorities, like highways and social services.

Less than a month ago, the group spoke in favor of Kelly’s proposal. It now says the plan contains a drafting error that will eventually shortchange funding by $270 million a year. State education officials say there was no error.

“Everybody circled the wagons and said ‘my side’s right,’ ‘no, my side’s right,’” said John Robb, an attorney for Schools for Fair Funding.

“So I guess what that means is, well, everybody can think their side’s right and we’ll go see what the court says,” Robb said.

The group’s reversal could upend the debate over school funding as lawmakers face a ticking clock. Attorney General Derek Schmidt has a mid-April deadline to brief the Supreme Court on any changes and Republican leaders have promised action in the coming weeks.

Lawmakers who support $92 million in additional spending could have to decide whether to back Kelly, Schools for Fair Funding, or look for a compromise. Meanwhile, opponents of additional funding may be able to exploit those divisions and slow down or halt the process.

Kelly, who campaigned on her support for education funding, isn’t backing away from the $90 million plan. Her office says it used figures from the Kansas State Department of Education. The agency says there’s no error.

“The goal of this bill is to address inflation, end the litigation and meet the needs of our students and schools. We look forward to working with lawmakers to settle this once and for all,” Kelly spokeswoman Ashley All said.

A leading Republican senator on education funding issues cast doubt Tuesday on the affordability of School for Fair Funding’s position.

“This new reach — or grab, if you will — to my knowledge absolutely prohibits any movement on highways, any movement on mental health care, any movement on any of our agencies,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican who chairs the Senate Education Finance Committee.

Robb dismissed criticism of what Schools for Fair Funding wants. He said lawmakers during Gov. Sam Brownback’s time in office didn’t seem as concerned by the future financial impact of legislation.

“It seems like a disingenuous argument,” Robb said.

Schools for Fair Funding’s attorneys have a successful track record arguing in court that Kansas schools are inadequately funded. Over the past few years, lawmakers have approved hundreds of millions in new education spending in response to the group’s ongoing lawsuit.

Lawmakers last year approved a $525 million annual funding increase for education that would phase in over five years. The Kansas Supreme Court largely signed off on the plan but faulted the Legislature for not adjusting for dollars that would be lost through inflation.

In July, the State Board of Education recommended an inflation adjustment of 1.4 percent, or roughly $90 million a year.

But Robb indicated Schools for Fair Funding was under the impression that the inflation adjustment would ultimately increase annual school spending by $363 million a year. That’s the size of the increase after four years if approximately $90 million is added each year on top of the previous year’s increase.

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This graphic, from Schools for Fair Funding, illustrates what the group believes what the correct amount of school funding inflation adjustment money should be. Schools for Fair Funding

He said the group first became aware of a problem when Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, raised the issue in a Senate Education Finance committee meeting on Feb. 6. At the time, the group stood by its support of the bill.

But by Feb. 26, Schools for Fair Funding had reversed itself and voiced opposition to the bill, according to an email obtained by The Eagle. That day, Schools for Fair Funding lobbyist Bill Brady emailed senators and attached amended committee testimony that said “it is now clear that Senator Denning was correct and there is a drafting error” in the legislation.

Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis, who has been working on school finance issues in Kansas for a half-century, said there was no error.

“If they have another alternative, they can submit that – but there’s no error” in the bill, Dennis said.

State Board member Jim McNiece, who represents part of southern Kansas, said the legislation accurately reflects the board’s recommendation.

“Sure, we could always ask for more. We asked for what we thought was legitimate and it’s been endorsed by the governor and I’m sure others can always find fault with it — on both sides of the aisle,” McNiece said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, suggested that a proposal he previously offered to add additional funding for two years could act as a compromise. If the Supreme Court keeps control of the case, the court could keep “our feet to the fire” in future years, he said.

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.

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