Politics & Government

Kansas school finance bills would fix inequities by adding money – or not

Kansas Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, during a Senate Ways and Means Committee meeting at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka last month.
Kansas Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, during a Senate Ways and Means Committee meeting at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka last month. Associated Press

Competing bills will seek to close funding inequities between school districts – one using existing money and the other adding money.

Senate budget chair Ty Masterson, R-Andover, plans to introduce a bill this week that would shift money already allocated to K-12 education and use it for equalization aid, an idea floated by the governor’s budget director last month.

“We’re on a short time frame,” Masterson said. The state Supreme Court said in its ruling last month that unless lawmakers fix the funding problem by the end of June, it plans to close the state’s schools.

The court ruled that lawmakers had failed to ensure equity among school districts when they eliminated the school finance formula last year and replaced it with block grants. The old formula provided equalization aid to compensate property-poor districts that cannot raise as much money as property-rich districts from property taxes.

Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget chairman, plans to introduce a bill to restore the old equalization method, which the court said would satisfy its ruling. That would require more than $38.6 million in additional funding for next school year, which Ryckman said would primarily go toward property tax relief.

Wichita schools stand to gain $10 million in additional state aid next school year if lawmakers go this route, an analysis by the Kansas Department of Education showed. Other districts, however, could potentially receive less state aid than under the block grants.

Ryckman, whose own district would lose money under this plan, had criticized the court last week for setting up a scenario where some districts would lose state aid while others gain.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, saw the introduction of the two bills as a negotiation tactic.

“It appears from what I am seeing and hearing that a classic battle between Sedgwick and Johnson County is being set up,” Carmichael said.

No analysis has been released showing how districts would fare under Masterson’s plan.

‘Playing takeaway’

Alan Rupe, an attorney for Wichita and the other plaintiff school districts, said an attempt to address the court order without additional money could be problematic.

“They’re playing takeaway,” Rupe said. “… And depending on where they get the money, like if they do it from that emergency fund or they take it from the schools that already need additional funding … it’s not even stealing from Peter to pay Paul. It’s stealing from Paul to pay Paul.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, rejected that reasoning. “The court order didn’t say to add additional funds. They said equalize,” she said.

“I think what everybody wants to do is to see the bill and see the run and learn the impact for their districts,” Wagle said. “So I think it’s going to be informational and we should actually look at that option. Don’t you think?”

‘Winners and losers’

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, a public school teacher, said lawmakers should fully equalize school funding by appropriating $70.9 million this year and $38.6 million next year, figures that come from the Department of Education’s analysis after the court ruling.

“If they’re going to take existing resources and try to shuffle them around for equalization purposes, then they are setting up a scenario that will definitely cause winners and losers,” Hensley said.

Rupe said lawmakers shouldn’t play “chicken” with the court.

“It’s not just the court that’s watching, it’s the public,” he said. “And if they’re playing chicken with the court, they’re playing chicken with the public.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3