Wichita schools would lose nearly $4 million in state aid for the current school year and school districts across the state would lose nearly $40 million under a bill debated Tuesday in a Senate committee.
But the south-central Kansas lawmaker pushing for the changes says they should not be viewed as cuts.
At an often-heated hearing, Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, clashed with opponents of SB 71 about whether the reduction in state funding for schools this year amounts to a cut. Masterson called it “a reduction to an increase,” and after the hearing, he said use of the term “cut” was “liberal” and “leftist.”
Lawmakers passed a bill last year to increase school money in response to a Supreme Court order to equalize funding among school districts. Now some are looking to scale that back as the state deals with a budget shortfall; they also say they want to distribute the money more fairly.
Masterson’s bill would recalculate how the state divides money intended to bridge the gap among property-rich and property-poor school districts.
Some conservative lawmakers are particularly upset that affluent districts such as Blue Valley in Johnson County are receiving money that is intended to compensate them for being impoverished.
That’s because the money is doled out to school districts based on how much taxable property value they have on the books per student. Masterson said schools in affluent Johnson County receive additional aid because of their high number of students under the current system, but some poorer schools in rural Gove County with low enrollment numbers do not.
Opponents of the bill say it would devastate school budgets and skirt the state’s constitutional obligation to adequately fund schools.
Masterson’s bill would apply to funding in this fiscal year, which ends in June. It would reduce Wichita schools’ state aid by more than $3.9 million.
“It’s a cut. And it’s midyear. It’s at the end of the year, which makes it harder to find those dollars,” Diane Gjerstad, the lobbyist for the Wichita school district, said after the hearing.
Derby would see a cut of more than $513,000, and Maize would see a cut of more than $430,000. Valley Center, Maize, Circle and Haysville would all see cuts of more than $100,000. Andover, Masterson’s home district, would see a reduction of more than $300,000.
Intent of bill disputed
Masterson disputed that the intent of the bill was to cut school funds. “The intent of the bill is to better define poverty versus rich,” he said.
Asked about his home district, Masterson said Andover would have received $1.7 million more this year under the current law and would still get $1.4 million if his bill passes.
“If I anticipated I was going to earn $100,000 in a year but at the end of my year I only earned $90,000 or $95,000, did my pay get cut?” Masterson said after the hearing. “No, it did not. I got less than I anticipated.”
Educators didn’t see it the same way.
Julie Ford, superintendent of the Topeka school district, told Masterson that a $900,000 cut in the middle of the school year would cause her district to scramble and likely force it to cut its summer education program.
Mark Tallman, spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards, told the Senate Ways and Means Committee that school districts built their budgets in good faith based on the current law.
“What can we do now?” Gjerstad asked the committee.
“The drought was over,” Gjerstad said about last year’s school finance bill, which increased the equalization aid Masterson’s bill would reduce.
Last year’s bill, which had an estimated cost of about $130 million, actually cost about $190 million.
Masterson compared the situation to buying a house for $130 million and discovering it cost $200 million after closing. He referred to the bill as “the Dale Dennis bill,” citing the deputy commissioner of education who oversees school finance.
“No, I didn’t write any bill. Nope,” Dennis said when asked about it. “We did the printouts as we were asked to do. ... It’s on the printout; it says multiple times ‘estimates.’ ”
Masterson was one of the main proponents of the bill he now says costs too much. He said the Department of Education gave lawmakers poor information.
Gjerstad said some lawmakers seemed to have forgotten that the primary purpose of last year’s bill was to lower property taxes by having the state match local option dollars.
“It did not increase school spending. What it did was it lowered property taxes overall,” she said.
Contacted after the hearing, Kevin McWhorter, vice president of the Goddard school board, said the board hasn’t yet discussed what specific cuts would have to be made if SB 71 were to be approved and the district were to lose $302,760 it’s banking on.
But, he said, “It would definitely have an effect.”
“We’ve been running our cash reserves down for the last couple of years” to avoid making deeper and more painful cuts in the district budget, he said. “We don’t have a lot of reserves anymore.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, the longest-serving member of the Legislature and a Topeka teacher, accused Masterson and other Republicans of trying to skirt the state’s constitutional duty.
Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a Wichita-based think tank, was the sole person to testify on behalf of the bill after several parents and educators spoke against it.
“This has nothing to do with whether districts need more money. They want more money, sure,” Trabert said.
The committee has yet to act on the bill.
Contributing: Brad Cooper and Dion Lefler of The Eagle
How SB 71 would affect area schools
Here are funding cuts for area school districts proposed in Senate Bill 71.
▪ Wichita, $3,934,746
▪ Andover, $304,087
▪ Circle, $223,529
▪ Derby, $513,485
▪ Goddard, $302,760
▪ Haysville, $188,063
▪ Maize, $430,929
▪ Valley Center, $150,848
Source: Kansas Department of Education