Politics & Government

Kansas Senate, House pass proposed school equity fix

Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget chair, right, confers with Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, during a Senate debate on school finance Thursday in Topeka.
Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget chair, right, confers with Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, during a Senate debate on school finance Thursday in Topeka. The Wichita Eagle

In an effort to keep schools from closing in July, lawmakers rapidly passed a bill Thursday that legislative leaders say meets a court order for more equitable school funding.

HB 2655 received broad support, but even some backers questioned whether it would be enough.

The Senate voted 32-5 and the House concurred 93-31, sending the bill to Gov. Sam Brownback 48 hours after it had been formally introduced.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in February that block grant funding adopted last year created gaps between school districts. It ordered lawmakers to find a solution by June 30 or risk school closures.

“There was a dictate by the court with the hammer of closing the schools,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, one of the bill’s chief architects.

Lawmakers then adjourned for a month.

The bill reallocates money for schools and changes the way the state calculates equalization aid for poor districts. No district will see funding drop because of the formula change; 23 will see funding increase.

“What we’re trying to do is keep the doors open at the schools,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. “We are trying to meet the court’s demands on equity. Otherwise, we would not have even passed a bill this year.”

Democrats say the bill falls far short of the court’s order to provide more equitable funding and could even widen disparities between districts.

Moderate Republicans echoed those concerns but voted for the bill, saying there were no better options and that passing a bill now would give the court more time to respond.

No gain for Wichita schools

Earlier unsuccessful bills to equalize funding contained as much as $10 million more for the Wichita school district next year. It would not receive any increase under this bill.

A district spokeswoman called the bill’s passage a disappointment. It comes as the district is already weighing options for budget cuts.

The old school finance formula gave school districts aid to supplement their local option budgets, money drawn from local property taxes, if they fell below the 81.2 percentile for average property value per student. This bill uses median property value per student.

That simplifies the process, Masterson said. He acknowledged that the result is “less lucrative” for some school districts.

The bill provides $2 million more statewide in school funding for next year. Fully funding the old equalization formula would have cost $38 million.

A duck or an eagle?

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, compared the bill to playing Russian roulette with the state’s schools.

“This is a duck. They’re trying to sell it like an eagle,” he said, predicting the bill would not satisfy the court order.

Cory Gibson, superintendent of the Valley Center school district, said the bill fails to make school funding equal for districts.

“This reminds me of the game where you have three cups and a ball. … Legislators are simply just moving the cups, but not fixing the equity issue,” Gibson said in an e-mail.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said legislative leaders were moving too quickly after sitting on the issue when the court ruled Feb. 11.

“We’ve had 42 days to deal with this issue and we are dealing with it in a matter of 48 hours,” he said.

Waiting for court’s response

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, who served as an attorney for the state in an earlier school finance case, said that by passing the bill this week the Legislature could receive a ruling from the court by May.

This would give schools more budget certainty if the court decides the bill fixes the equity issue. It would also give lawmakers time to pass another bill before July if the court rules that it does not, King said.

Some of that could hinge on how equalization is defined. The bill cuts a category called local option budget supplemental aid but gives it back to districts as “hold harmless” aid.

Supporters say the change equalizes funding, but opponents say it could increase disparities between districts and encourage local property tax increases.

Districts that lose local option budget aid could increase their mill rates to recoup that and still keep the hold-harmless aid. Democrats said the bill could lead to $80 million in property tax increases across the state.

‘Does this fix the problem?’

Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget chairman, said the bill ensures that no districts have to raise property taxes, but that districts would have the power to do so because of local control.

He repeatedly said that the way the bill redistributes money would create greater flexibility because most of it would go to districts’ general fund budgets.

Some lawmakers think that equity is an insoluble problem.

“The idea that we can equalize is ridiculous,” said Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton. “Let me say that again. The idea that we can equalize is ridiculous.”

Rhoades compared the concept of equalization to socialism and said that any attempt to create equity would only lead to future inequities.

“Does this fix the problem? No, this doesn’t fix the problem,” he said before voting for the bill an hour later.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

How they voted

Here’s how south-central Kansas lawmakers voted on HB 2655, a proposal to satisfy a Supreme Court order to equalize school funding. The bill passed 32-5 in the Senate and 93-31 in the House.

Democrats: All voted no.

Republicans: All voted yes except for Reps. Steve Anthimides, Les Osterman and Joseph Scapa of Wichita, who voted no.

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