Archive for Monday, March 8, 2004

Plan would radically change school funding

Shawnee Mission employee proposes local control

March 8, 2004


— Now that Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' education plan has been defeated, the next major school funding plan out of the chute for Kansas lawmakers is one written by a little-known school administrator.

The plan by Tim Rooney, manager of budget and finance for the Shawnee Mission school district, will be voted on by the House this week and is supported by Republican leaders in that chamber.

In meetings with small groups of legislators and school officials, Rooney has left a wake of converts and detractors.

After one briefing, Rep. Jeff Jack, R-Parsons, said, "The solution you've come up with appears to be pretty amazing."

Yet others are suspicious. One legislator asked Rooney what was in it for Rooney's school district. "We want local control," Rooney said.

Rooney says his plan gives local schools more control over their own destiny and avoids the annual political bloodbath in the Legislature over the funding of base state aid per pupil, which is the foundation of the current school finance system.

But the plan has many detractors who say it is too complicated, further embeds inequities in a system already declared unconstitutional, and will end up costing much more than advertised.

House Democratic Leader Dennis McKinney, of Greensburg, said the Rooney plan was being used by some to divert attention from the real problems of schools -- the lack of state funding and disparities in aid from one school district to another.

"Some here have complained about the existing formula for so long, they have to grab ahold of something else," McKinney said.

How it works

Distributing $2.6 billion in state aid to 302 school districts with more than 400,000 students is one of the biggest and most complicated jobs of state government.

Currently, the Legislature decides how much money to provide per student and then adds more dollars for certain categories of students, such as those who are at risk of failing or those whose first language isn't English.

The state then allows districts to raise a certain amount of money locally, but most districts that have opted to do this have reached the allowed limit because they have been trying to make up for shortfalls in funding from the state.

Lawmakers are constantly fighting over how much to "put in the base" and how much to allow districts to raise locally.

The Rooney plan, in the first year of implementation, increases the current base state aid per pupil from $3,863 to $3,890, and institutes a "hold harmless" provision that would allow districts to retain their current budget authority.

In the second year is where things change dramatically. The old system is scrapped and the state pays a guaranteed "wealth factor" to all districts except the 15 wealthiest.

From that point on, all school budget increases would result from increases in assessed valuation and increases in local property tax levies.

The state would supplement this local property tax effort, with poorer districts receiving a greater proportion of state aid than wealthier districts.

But the trigger to getting that state aid is increasing local property taxes by the local school districts.

That would allow local school boards to decide what they wanted to do, then raise the taxes to pay for it and draw down the state dollars, Rooney said.

Many concerns

Sen. Mark Buhler, R-Lawrence, said he doubted such a major overhaul of the school funding formula could be adopted this year.

Buhler voted for Sebelius' proposal to increase state sales, income and property taxes to boost school funding by $304 million over three years.

The Sebelius plan targeted at-risk and non-English-speaking students, as well as early childhood development, which the governor said addressed many of the concerns raised in an order by Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock, who last year declared the Kansas school finance system unconstitutional. Still, Sebelius' proposal was defeated in the Senate.

"The Rooney Plan may be a great plan, but it doesn't enhance funding" enough, Buhler said.

Asked point-blank whether his plan would comply with Bullock's ruling, Rooney said, "I don't know."

Rep. Ted Powers, R-Mulvane, said he was impressed with Rooney's proposal but that the political reality was that his vote and the votes of many others would depend on how the plan affected the districts they represent.

Education officials were preparing voluminous printouts to try to nail that down. But there are so many moving parts to Rooney's proposal, and unanswered questions, they were having a difficult time.

Under figures provided by Rooney, the Lawrence school district's current budget of $55.3 million could grow anywhere from $5 million to $13 million over five years.

Kathy Johnson, director of finance for the Lawrence school district, said the Rooney Plan would make budgeting easier because the district could track increases in assessed valuation and then have a good idea about how much more funding it would receive.

But, she added, "If the state doesn't fund the part of the plan that it should, then the plan won't work."

That is one of the major flaws of the plan, McKinney said.

If local school districts started increasing their taxes to the limit that they would be allowed under the plan, then the costs for the state to supplement that funding would skyrocket, he said. One legislative estimate shows that if districts increased their taxes to the limit each year, the increase in state aid would have to be more than $2.5 billion over the next five years.

"You think everyone here in the Legislature would go along with that?" McKinney asked. "If they did, that would be a vast departure from where we've been recently," he said.

Also, McKinney said, poor districts would have to increase taxes to leverage state money.

"You still have a formula that allows a greater disparity between wealthy and poor districts. This plan locks in those inequities," he said.

But Rooney has said the increases would be much lower than what has been projected by legislative staff. He said much of the criticism of his plan is because it's different than what people are used to. "It's a change and people aren't sure how it will play out," he said.

The Rooney Plan is Substitute for HB 2807.

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