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Archive for Tuesday, January 7, 1992

THIRD INSERIES

January 7, 1992

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It was a Shawnee County district judge who recently implied that the state's system of financing public schools is unconstitutional. However, a Lawrence school board member hopes the 1992 Legislature not the judge will develop a suitable alternative to the present system.

Other Lawrence school officials say that whatever answer the Legislature comes up with, it should include long-range planning for funding public schools, lower property taxes and a more equitable distribution of state dollars among school districts.

In an October ruling, Judge Terry Bullock said that in order to provide all children with equal access to a good education, the state must fairly distribute all resources available including property taxes raised by school districts.

ONE CONCERN is the disparity among school district general fund mill levies, which, because of differences in district wealth, range from 9.12 mills in Burlington to 97.69 mills in Parsons.

Board member John Tacha said he was bothered by recent comments by Sen. Fred Kerr, R-Pratt, and Rep. Rick Bowden, D-Goddard. The two lawmakers said that "whatever we do in the Legislature, the judge probably will say is wrong."

"That really upset me. I really don't believe that," Tacha said. "I think 50 to 100 people can come up with a better plan than one judge."

Gov. Joan Finney is expected to propose that the Legislature enact a statewide 45-mill property tax to help fund elementary and secondary education.

She said residents of 253 of the state's 304 local school districts would realize property tax reductions if there were a uniform 45-mill property tax levy. One of those districts would be Lawrence, which has a 1991 general fund levy of 69.478 mills and a total levy of 77.044 mills.

TACHA NOTED that under that plan, Burlington would see its school mill levy go from 9.12 mills to 45 mills.

"I don't think that's a fair jump for those people," Tacha said, adding that if such a plan were implemented, perhaps it could be phased in over several years.

"Otherwise, there are going to be lawsuits all over Kansas," he said.

Lawrence School Supt. Dan Neuenswander agreed that even though Finney's proposal would mean a lower mill levy here, the Lawrence school district should not be looking out only for itself.

"I think we've probably passed the time where we can be extremely parochial in our view of funding for public education," Neuenswander said.

Neuenswander said Finney's proposal as it stands doesn't address the real issue: the equitable state funding of school districts statewide. For instance, he said, per-pupil spending in the state's school districts ranges from $2,700 to $10,000.

ALSO, HE said, districts such as Lawrence that are in the second-highest enrollment category receive less per-pupil funding than the five districts that are in the largest enrollment category.

Although a belief in economies of scale has moved the state to provide bigger school districts with less per-pupil funding than smaller districts, the "big five" school districts managed to convince the Legislature that the inner-city problems they face create costs not found in other districts, Neuenswander said.

He thinks some of those claims are unfounded.

Nevertheless, Neuenswander said he was encouraged by 1991 legislation that gradually would increase the per-pupil funding of districts in the second-highest category to the same level as districts in the largest enrollment category.

"In this time of potential upheaval, we want to make sure we keep that in front of the Legislature," Neuenswander said.

BOARD members Tacha, Harriet Shaffer and Jerry Hannah agreed they aren't ready to support Finney's proposal for a statewide mill levy.

Tacha said the present funding formula is fine except for a few inequities that need to be addressed.

Shaffer said she is concerned that with a statewide property tax, school districts might lose some of their local autonomy.

For example, a district referendum held in 1988 allowed district residents to vote on a proposed property tax increase for increasing teachers salaries. The referendum passed.

"I'd like to see the district remain with that option," Shaffer said.

Said Hannah, "We need less government involved in what we're doing locally. What we really need from Topeka is a lot better long-range financial planning. That information would feed into our local planning.

"They have a five-year plan for building roads. But right now, funding for public education is done one year at a time, and it's done in the closing hours. Let's get a long-range state financing plan that does not handcuff the local boards and their constituents."

BOARD MEMBER Barbara Ballard said the least the Legislature could do is break tradition and not wait until the end of the legislative session to develop a plan for school finance.

"Usually, we don't know what we're going to get from the state until the very last minute," she said.

Meanwhile, board members Alice Fowler, Mary Loveland, Hannah and Shaffer all stressed that they prefer less reliance on property taxes for funding public education.

"I think eventually we will have to look at some kind of other revenue sources to get away from the strong reliance on property taxes," Shaffer said.

Neuenswander said he definitely will stay in touch with local legislators throughout the session.

"Our legislators are so good. They stay in contact with me. And if something comes up that they're unfamiliar with, they're willing to seek out my opinion and the opinion of others in the field," Neuenswander said.

Hannah said he plans to stay in touch not only with local legislators but with leaders of the Kansas House and Senate.

Tacha said he hopes school officials aren't the only ones who are in touch with legislators.

"We should try to get citizens from our own community to write some of those letters," he said.

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