School finance always is a difficult undertaking for the Kansas Legislature, but this year it will be especially cumbersome, local legislators and an official from the state's legislative research department said Saturday.
During an "eggs and issues breakfast" at the Eldridge Hotel, Ben Barrett, associate director of the Legislative Research Department, said the "new ingredient" spicing up school finance this year is the involvement of the courts.
Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock, who is presiding over suits challenging the constitutionality of the state's current school funding formula, has served notice that he's expecting changes from the Legislature.
Gov. Joan Finney has proposed a significant change in the way public schools are funded. Her plan calls for the state to take control of school finance entirely from local school districts and levy a uniform property tax levy of 45 mills statewide. A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed property valuation.
FINNEY'S plan also would transfer responsibility for school facilities to the state. Finney endorsed a recommendation of the Governor's Task Force on Public School Financing that local school districts be given extra spending authority for special education, vocational education, bilingual education and transportation.
Local legislators said at the breakfast that school finance would dominate the session as the state struggles with how to finance its 304 school districts. The Lawrence school district would fare well under Finney's plan, which would cut local property taxes by about 24 mills and would supply nearly $480,000 more state aid.
But local legislators said they must look beyond Lawrence and take the entire state's future into consideration.
Sen. Wint Winter Jr., R-Lawrence, said legislators must put aside "regional differences and partisan bickering."
WINTER SAID the pending lawsuits are a "tremendous challenge."
"The courts will not simply rewrite the formula for us," he said.
If the Legislature can't figure out an equitable school finance plan, the state simply won't issue money for schools, Winter said.
"We must attend to the situation," he said. "Action is what we must have."
Sen. Dave Webb, R-Stilwell, said he doesn't support statewide financing of schools because he believes it will result in a "system of mediocrity" instead of local school districts striving for excellence.
Webb also expressed concern about Finney's proposal for video lottery.
"Funding education through the lottery would be a huge step back for Kansas," Webb said, drawing visible support from the audience.
Rep. Sandy Praeger, R-Lawrence, stressed that educational reform must go hand in hand with the school finance issue.
LIKE REP. John Solbach, D-Lawrence, Praeger said the state's obligation is to "do a better job with our young people."
Praeger called for safe and stimulating school environments; schools setting performance based goals, such as the educational "outcomes" for local students; incentives for performance from students, teachers and administrators; and competent faculty with a commitment to learning.
While it looks as though Finney's plan would be a "win-win" situation for Lawrence schools, Praeger said the Legislature must take a look at how the plan would affect schools statewide.
Echoing Praeger, Lawrence school district Supt. Dan Neuenswander said that "equity is essential."