Topeka — Lawrence schools went 0-for-2 Thursday as the Kansas Senate rejected Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' proposal to increase taxes for public schools, then turned down a request from Douglas County for a chance to vote on a local sales tax increase for education.
"It's back to the drawing board," Lawrence Supt. Randy Weseman said.
Either measure would have pumped millions of new dollars into the Lawrence school district, which has been struggling with tight budgets for several years.
As the tax and funding measures went down to defeat, Republican legislative leaders promised to provide some kind of school funding proposal this year, but declined to offer specifics.
"Kansas is a very diverse state, and it's difficult to build a consensus on this subject," House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said in an online chat at www.ljworld.com. "But we will make a serious effort with regard to school finance this session."
Kline sounds hopeful
The debate over taxes and schools comes almost midway through the legislative session, during an election year and against the backdrop of a district court decision that declared Kansas schools were unconstitutionally underfunded and the method of funding discriminated against minority students.
Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock, in a preliminary order, gave the Legislature until July 1 to revamp the $2.7 billion system, and indicated that a $1 billion increase was needed.
But the Legislature has approved, and Sebelius has promised to sign into law, a bill that would allow the preliminary order to be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.
Thursday, Atty. Gen. Phill Kline said Bullock indicated during a conference call that he would consider a move to accelerate the case to the state Supreme Court for immediate consideration.
But Democrats, including Sebelius, and some Republicans have argued that despite the legal wranglings over the lawsuit, the Legislature should step up and pump more money into schools now and change the funding methods to close inequities in distribution of funds.
Sales tax criticized
Bullock's ruling that poor districts fail to receive a fair amount of school funding was at the center of arguments Thursday against the bill that would have allowed Douglas County voters to consider a half-cent sales tax increase for education.
Opponents of the measure said it would be unfair to counties that couldn't afford to increase sales taxes for schools.
"It only exacerbates the situation we are in," said Sen. Janis Lee, a Democrat from Kensington.
Sen. Christine Downey, D-Inman, said the proposal went against what Bullock had told the Legislature to do. "It adds more fuel to the fire," she said.
But Sen. Mark Buhler, the Lawrence Republican who sponsored the bill, said the legislation was the product of frustration with inadequate school financing.
On school funding, "I see nothing but caution lights and stop lights, and I'm getting tired of it," Buhler said.
An amendment to add Wyandotte County to the bill was defeated; then, on a voice vote, the Senate rejected the legislation carried by Buhler.
The sales tax would have generated $5.9 million, including more than $4.2 million for Lawrence public schools.
Sebelius plan shot down
Earlier, the Senate rejected Sebelius' proposal to increase state sales, income and property taxes to provide $304 million to schools over three years. The Lawrence district would have received $2.1 million in additional funds next year under the bill.
The 25-14 vote against the measure was expected and came after nearly three hours of debate a day earlier.
"It wasn't a shock, but we're disappointed," said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist with the Kansas Association of School Boards.
Supporters of the Sebelius bill described it as a reasonable plan to start the discussion on school finance.
"This is the best offer currently available," Downey said.
But opponents said the tax increases would wreck the economy.
"This tax increase is too much too soon," said Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita.
Nine Democrats and five Republicans, including Buhler, supported Sebelius' plan.
The 25 votes against the measure were all cast by Republicans. One Democratic state senator didn't vote.
Sen. David Adkins, R-Leawood, voted for Sebelius' proposal, saying the Legislature's effort on school finance had been "denial, delay and demagoguery."
But Sen. Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, voted against the measure, saying better proposals would be coming down the pike.
Sebelius said she would continue working on school finance. "The cost of yet another year of inaction is too high," she said.