Politics & Government

Brownback says he will sign school finance plan passed by lawmakers

Teachers, school officials, parents and others crowd the doorway of the Old Supreme Court Chambers as a joint meeting of the House and Senate budget committees gets underway to address the issue of school finance funding on Thursday in Topeka.
Teachers, school officials, parents and others crowd the doorway of the Old Supreme Court Chambers as a joint meeting of the House and Senate budget committees gets underway to address the issue of school finance funding on Thursday in Topeka. Associated Press

Gov. Sam Brownback says he will sign a school finance bill that passed both chambers of the Kansas Legislature on Friday night with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Brownback, lawmakers and school officials all hope the measure will eliminate any possibility of a school shutdown next month and satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court order for more equitable school funding.

The bill will steer more than $10 million in additional aid to the Wichita school district, and the district’s attorneys submitted a letter to lawmakers saying they won’t contest the bill in court.

Lawmakers and school districts both declared victory, suggesting that the issue of whether Kansas schools are equitably funded is settled for now.

“Even plaintiffs’ attorneys agreeing for the first time in the known history of school finance litigation that the Legislature has fully complied, that’s pretty good,” said Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, who served as the state’s attorney in a previous school finance case.

The plan was crafted after a coalition of Republicans balked at leadership’s original plan, which would have cut all school districts’ general state aid by 0.5 percent in order to pay for a financial solution to inequities identified by the court. The new plan does not include the cut.

HB 2001 passed the House 116-6 and an hour later passed the Senate 38-1.

“I will sign it, and this will be finished,” Brownback said, noting that Wichita school district and other plaintiff districts that have sued the state over school funding since 2010 supported the bill.

Their attorney, Alan Rupe, confirmed in an e-mail that the plaintiff districts have agreed to file a joint stipulation with the court saying the bill meets the equity standard.

The court still needs to rule in the future on whether Kansas schools are adequately funded.

“While plaintiffs view this as a victory, we are also mindful that this is just one aspect of the overall case,” Rupe said. “One down, one to go.”

The plan will take some proceeds from the sale of the Kansas Bioscience Authority for use in the school finance fix, an idea that attracted support from moderate Republicans and Democrats who objected to House leaders’ initial plan.

“Everybody ought to be just warm and fuzzy about it,” House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, joked about the compromise.

Lawmakers enabled Brownback to sell off the assets of the Bioscience Authority, which oversaw investment in the biotech sector, earlier this year.

The pending sale is estimated to bring in $25 million, but if the sale surpasses that mark, up to $13 million could be used to give aid to poor school districts, allowing lawmakers to avoid a cut to all districts’ general fund budgets.

However, Brownback said he does not expect the Bioscience Authority sale to beat its estimates. That means alternative sources of funding will likely have to be used.

“I wouldn’t be particularly confident of that at all. But there’s another piece if it doesn’t click in,” Brownback said. “That’s not the sort of estimates I’ve been seeing as far as the price tag on KBA, but who knows. I just wouldn’t be confident it’s going to come in higher than $25 (million).”

If the sale comes up short, the bill would allow the state to empty the K-12 extraordinary needs fund, a pool of money meant to help districts cope with unforeseen costs. And another $5 million can be taken out of the Kansas Department of Transportation’s motor vehicle fee fund, which otherwise goes to highway projects.

Despite the uncertainty about the Bioscience Authority sale, the plan attracted a broad base of support.

“Yes, I can live with this,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, one of the main lawmakers who pushed for alternatives to the original bill.

“The main thing is we protected the classroom, which was the key,” she said. “The sources of funding are never easy, whichever direction we’re going at this point, but I do like the fact that I think we have a compromise that I think will have plenty of support.”

The Senate waited until it received a signed letter from the districts’ attorneys before it began debate on the bill.

“We want the signature of their attorney. … Not that I don’t trust them, but I don’t trust them,” said Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood.

The bill would bring in nearly $10.3 million to the Wichita school district. A little more than half of that would go toward property tax relief for Wichita residents.

“We lost over $17 million in state aid the last two years. Our property taxpayers have paid higher taxes. They deserve having a tax reduction,” said Diane Gjerstad, a spokeswoman for the Wichita school district.

In addition to the tax relief, the bill gives the district $4.5 million in capital outlay aid that Gjerstad said would give it “a little breathing room” to “fund the brick and mortar of schools.”

A total of 169 school districts will see net gains in their state funding through the plan. Another 77 districts will see net losses, but they will lose less than they would have under the leadership’s original plan. And 40 districts will see no change in funding.

Todd White, the superintendent of the Blue Valley school district, said the bill was much better than the one lawmakers entered Topeka with the previous day. He credited that to collaboration between school officials and lawmakers.

“There were a lot of people who participated at various levels to make sure we were going to have the best opportunity to have schools open on July 1,” he said.

Conservatives, moderates and Democrats all embraced the plan, a rare occurrence in Topeka.

“I think this is a fabulous spirit of collaboration, bipartisan agreement,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City.

“Nobody wants to close schools,” Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said before the House debate. “I think this is a good compromise. … There’s things that people don’t like in there, but everybody can get behind it. And I think that’s what’s happening right now. Everybody’s getting behind it and saying, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ ”

All south-central Kansas lawmakers voted for the plan, except for Wichita Republican Reps. Mario Goico and Gene Suellentrop, who were absent.

Some Republican lawmakers had initially bristled at the prospect of the special session and even suggested a few weeks ago that the Legislature defy the court.

A handful of members still felt that way Friday evening. Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, said lawmakers had sent a message that the Legislature is subservient to the court.

For the most part, however, lawmakers embraced the need to craft a solution and do it quickly.

“I believe the legislators realized the seriousness of the situation,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. “They didn’t want schools closed, and it was a relatively small amount of money. And we clearly wanted to resolve the problem.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

Total gain for Wichita-area school districts

Wichita: $10.3 million

Derby: $1.6 million

Goddard: $777,816

Maize: $653,497

Mulvane: $635,877

Valley Center: $364,486

Haysville: $303,796

Renwick: $169,000

Clearwater: $165,829

Cheney: $81,660

Andover: $18,815*

*Andover loses in some categories of aid but gains overall.

Funding sources

$2.8 million cut to virtual school aid

$7.3 million sweep from the K-12 extraordinary needs fund

$4.1 million sweep from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families

$10.5 million from state’s tobacco settlement

$13 million from the sale of the Kansas Bioscience Authority*

*If the KBA sale comes up short, an additional $8 million will come from the extraordinary needs fund and another $5 million will come from KDOT’s motor vehicle fee fund.