Shifting to a statewide property tax would make the Kansas school finance system fairer and simpler, a Wichita school district official said Wednesday.
Jim Freeman of the Wichita school district presented the framework for a new school finance formula, developed by the United School Administrators of Kansas, at an education conference in Topeka on Wednesday. State lawmakers plan to adopt a new formula next year.
The idea would represent a major change from the current system and could face resistance from lawmakers in Johnson County, where local property taxes have been used to boost schools in the past during dips in school funding.
Now, each school district sets its own property tax rate. The state then provides supplemental aid for property-poor districts, which are unable to raise as much money through local taxes. This pool of money is known as the local option budget and accounts for about $1 billion in education funding statewide.
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The proposal presented by Freeman would replace that with a statewide property tax that would be equal across all districts and go into a central pot. The state would distribute the money to all districts based on need.
That billion dollars just becomes part of that general fund pot, and the Legislature decides how to generate that money.
Jim Freeman of the Wichita school district
“That billion dollars just becomes part of that general fund pot, and the Legislature decides how to generate that money,” said Freeman, who recently stepped down as the Wichita school district’s chief financial officer but continues to work on projects for the district.
Virtually every school district in the state uses local tax money as general operating dollars, “so why not move all that money over to the general fund and call it what it is?” he said.
It would be up to lawmakers to set the statewide tax rate under this proposal, Freeman said.
He said this would be a fairer way to fund schools and would eliminate the need for equalization aid, which was at the center of a standoff between the Legislature and the Kansas Supreme Court earlier this year that threatened to shut down schools.
The Legislature has resolved the issue of equity for now, but the Kansas Supreme Court will hold oral arguments on Sept. 21 to consider whether school funding is adequate.
The Legislature will have to craft a new school finance plan next year regardless of how the court rules because the current block grants expire at the end of this fiscal year.
‘An absolute nonstarter’
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway in Johnson County, called the idea “an absolute nonstarter” because it would take away districts’ power to set their own tax rates.
It puts all of the funding in control of the state, and I would just have to look at these superintendents and go, ‘How is that working for you?’
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway
“It puts all of the funding in control of the state, and I would just have to look at these superintendents and go, ‘How is that working for you?’ ” she said.
Freeman said there still would be local control because local school boards would decide how to spend the money.
Todd White, the superintendent of the Blue Valley School District, was not ready Wednesday to take a position on the idea, but he called it a “radical change from what we’ve done in the past.”
Lynn Rogers, a member of the Wichita school board who is seeking a seat in the Kansas Senate, said the framework is a good starting point that would simplify the system. “It means that we would have to fund the base adequately,” he added.
Brownback seeks suggestions
Lawmakers need to craft a new school finance formula after scrapping the old one in 2015 and replacing it with temporary block grants.
Gov. Sam Brownback’s office said in a news conference Wednesday that it has sent a letter to more than 40 educational organizations, including the United School Administrators and the Wichita school district, seeking input on a new formula. Recommendations should be submitted to StudentsFirst@ks.gov before Nov. 30.
Brownback would not say whether he supported the concept of a statewide property tax, but he applauded the school administrators for exploring the idea.
This is putting pen to paper on how these things actually happen. So the idea of that being floated? Good. That’s the sort of discussion we ought to have.
Gov. Sam Brownback
“This is putting pen to paper on how these things actually happen,” he said. “So the idea of that being floated? Good. That’s the sort of discussion we ought to have.”
Betty Arnold, a member of the Wichita school board who traveled to Topeka on Wednesday, said she was skeptical about whether Brownback would follow through on his promise to seriously consider the input from educational leaders.
“What we’ve said all along is let’s all come together and have a discussion,” Arnold said. “Now he’s saying that and that’s wonderful, and if he follows through on it, I think that’s even better, but right now I’m hopeful but I’m not optimistic.”
‘It has to be about ... students’
Brownback championed the passage of the block grants in 2015 with the promise that the Legislature would begin work on a permanent new school finance system over the next two years. That work has progressed slowly so far.
“I kept thinking that the Legislature would step up and start doing a number of these hearings and these proposals … and people didn’t step forward,” Brownback said when pressed on why he had waited until now to seek input from educators.
Jim McNiece of Wichita, the chairman of the State Board of Education, joined Brownback at the news conference. He said it serves the state better to first lay out goals of what it wants schools to accomplish rather than beginning with a focus on funding.
If you start about money, it’s always about money. It has to be about what do we want from our students, our children and the future of our state and country.
Jim McNiece, chairan of the State Board of Education
“If you start about money, it’s always about money,” McNiece said. “It has to be about what do we want from our students, our children and the future of our state and country.”