Politics & Government

Gov. Sam Brownback signs bill ‘to keep our schools open’

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in a classroom at Maize in 2014. (March 4, 2014)
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in a classroom at Maize in 2014. (March 4, 2014) File photo

Gov. Sam Brownback has signed a bill that Republican leaders hope will keep the state’s schools open and satisfy a Supreme Court order for more equitable school funding.

It will now be up to the court to decide whether HB 2655 meets its February order that lawmakers give poorer school districts a fair share of funding before July 1. The bill reshuffles existing funding but leaves most districts with the same amount they expected before.

Brownback said he signed the bill to “keep our our schools open” and called it the “result of a delicate legislative compromise – one that I respectfully endorse and that the Court should review with appropriate deference.”

The bill changes the way the state calculates equalization aid for poor school districts. It cuts one category of state aid for most school districts, but offsets that with money meant to hold school districts harmless.

The result is that most school districts, including Wichita, will receive the same amount of state aid they were already set to receive next year – an amount lawyers for plaintiff districts say is insufficient. Twenty-three districts, including Mulvane and Derby, will see a net increase.

The bill also empowers school districts to raise local property taxes as a way to bring in more money. Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, one of the architects of the bill, said education leaders testified to lawmakers “that they would like that extra flexibility.”

Opponents say the bill falls far short of the court’s order for more equitable funding and that allowing local property tax increases will increase disparities between school districts.

“They’ve done the worst possible thing,” said Alan Rupe, an attorney for the Wichita school district and other plaintiff districts. “They have left the valleys where they are and they have increased the mountaintops. … I don’t think for a minute that creating greater disparity is going to satisfy the court. It’s sure not going to satisfy the plaintiffs.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys will contest the bill in court. Rupe and his colleague John Robb expect the court to expedite the process and schedule a hearing in a few weeks.

Diane Gjerstad, lobbyist for the Wichita school district, said the district expects the court to overrule the Legislature’s action and send lawmakers back for another try at more equitable school funding.

She compared the governor’s decision to sign the bill to a disputed call in a basketball game. “Now it goes across the street to the court, and … they’re the referees in this,” Gjerstad said.

Wichita, the state’s largest school district, projects cost increases of between $16 million and $30 million for the next fiscal year. Officials are considering budget cuts that include laying off staff, privatizing custodial services, cutting transportation and eliminating all-day kindergarten.

“We have to go forth and plan with what we know,” Gjerstad said Thursday, noting that the bill provides no new money for the district.

“Some people say that it’s just about money, but it’s not. It’s really about the educational success of our kids,” she added.

Change in equalization aid

The issue hinges on how the aid is defined.

Before the state switched to block grant funding last year, it rewarded school districts with equalization aid if they fell below the 81.2 percentile for average property value per student. The intent was to keep those districts level with property-rich districts that could raise more money through local property taxes.

If lawmakers had returned to this equalization method and fully funded it, Wichita would have gained $10 million in state aid. But other school districts would have lost overall state aid, which prompted a backlash from Johnson County lawmakers.

As an alternative, lawmakers passed a bill that calculates equalization aid based on the median property value per student, a change that prevented Wichita from seeing an overall gain in funding.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, who filed a constitutional protest against the bill, called it “worse than nothing, because it wastes time we don’t have in trying to fix the problem. It addresses none of the concerns that the court has.”

He added that any benefits from the bill flow north to the wealthy Kansas City-area suburbs, where they can easily raise property taxes to boost their schools’ budgets.

“The takeaway of this bill is any new money comes from local property taxes. And if fully implemented and every district takes advantage of that, it’s like an $82 million property tax increase statewide. That’s just ridiculous,” he said.

Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, acknowledged the bill was less generous to Wichita than some of the other options considered, but he disputed Ward’s contention that it benefits only Johnson County.

“When I look at the first bills … I saw Haysville losing $200,000 and Wichita gaining $10 million, and frankly I was running an amendment to pull $200,000 out of Wichita to give it to Haysville,” Whitmer said.

He also said Wichita should tap its reserves to make up for shortfalls “rather than cutting school hours or changing start times or laying off teachers.”

Statewide, the bill would increase funding for districts statewide by $2 million, compared with a nearly $40 million increase that would have resulted from fully funding the old equalization method. It would take that money out of the extraordinary needs fund, a pool of money meant to help districts in financial emergencies, meaning that the bill won’t cost the state any additional tax dollars.

State’s response to court

Attorney General Derek Schmidt officially filed the state’s response to the court Thursday afternoon, submitting 775 pages of documents meant to outline lawmakers’ rationale. The court has previously scolded the state for not offering sufficient evidence to back up its arguments in school finance litigation.

“There is clearly no need to order the schools to close, and we are asking the Court to act quickly so that worry can be eliminated as soon as possible for educators, parents and schoolchildren throughout our state,” Schmidt said in a statement.

The Kansas Association of School Boards took a cautious tone, saying in a statement that the association hopes the court “will quickly decide whether this law is constitutional.”

“If it is struck down, we hope legislators will tackle the issue as quickly as possible to avoid a possible closure of schools this summer,” said Mark Tallman, KASB’s associate executive director.

Jim McNiece of Wichita, chair of the state Board of Education, would not say whether he thought the bill would satisfy the court’s order to fix equity.

But he expressed hope that the public conversations over school finance would evolve into more of a dialogue about the specific needs of students in the future instead of just the dollar amounts.

“We need to quit worrying about fighting over stuff that isn’t helping kids,” he said. “Change the conversation to ‘What do our kids really need?’ not ‘What’s the least amount of money we can do with the most efficient amount of time?’ This isn’t widgets. This is kids.”

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback discusses the school finance case. (Bryan Lowry/The Wichita Eagle)

Wichita public schools superintendent John Allison comments on Supreme Court ruling that Kansas school funding is inequitable. (Feb. 11, 2016/Mike Hutmacher/The Wichita Eagle.)

Contributing: Dion Lefler and Suzanne Tobias of The Eagle

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

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