Archive for Monday, July 11, 2005

Gambling, taxes next on agenda

July 11, 2005

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— One education funding invoice has been paid, but legislators could have a larger bill coming due next year, forcing them to consider new gambling, higher taxes or school consolidation - a subject they've dodged for four decades.

Under pressure from the Kansas Supreme Court, legislators approved a $148.4 million school finance plan and adjourned a special session after 12 days. Their package would boost total state aid to the state's 300 school districts to more than $3 billion, the largest it's ever been.

Still, it might not be enough to satisfy the court or parents and administrators in Dodge City and Salina, who sued the state in 1999. In a June 3 order, the court said it would consider requiring an increase of as much as $568 million next year.

In past rulings against the state, the Supreme Court and a Shawnee County judge have suggested that legislators could reorganize the education system to rein in administrative costs - making consolidation an issue.

"I think everything is going to be on the table when we get back in January," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence.

Educators across Kansans still were trying to figure out what passage of the Legislature's latest plan meant for their districts. Part of the new money will be distributed per-pupil, but some of it is set aside for special education and programs that help students at risk of failing. Nearly $28 million would go to property tax relief as well.

Only about 30 districts have finished contract negotiations with their teachers, according to the Department of Education. School boards will have until Sept. 7 to submit their 2005-06 budgets to county clerks.

Some superintendents worry that whatever gains they could see will be erased by declining enrollments, which cause state aid to drop.

"In looking at it initially, the 'new money' will about offset what we lose," said Larry Lysell, superintendent of Republic County schools.

Added South Barber Superintendent Bob Hightree: "What has been overlooked is the fact that most districts are in this boat."

The additional money is on top of a $142 million increase legislators approved in March. The total so far - an additional $290 million - raises state spending on public schools by more than 10 percent for the 2005-06 school year.

In its June 3 order, the court told legislators that their first, $142 million increase was half as large as needed to fulfill a constitutional duty to provide a suitable education for every child. The justices based that conclusion on an educational cost study commissioned in 2001 by legislators but rejected by legislators as flawed.

The court said it forced legislators to put the rest of the study into effect unless a new cost study provides better figures.

A few legislators already have suggested consolidating schools to lower costs.

Generally, their plans would force most of the state's 105 counties to have only one district. In 2003, two superintendents outlined a plan to cut the number of districts to as few as 40.

But legislators so far have only removed some obstacles to school districts merging voluntarily. Over the past four years, four school districts have died, the latest being Nes Tre La Go in Ness County on July 1.

"Any consolidation is going to take more courage than our current leaders exhibit, especially if it is done right and done fairly," said Dave Roberts, superintendent of Clifton-Clyde in Washington and Cloud counties.

In 1963, the state still had about 1,850 school districts when legislators forced consolidation to improve the quality of academic programs.

The resulting political furor remains etched in legislators' collective memory, even if most lawmakers weren't yet in grade school themselves. Rural lawmakers worry consolidation will kill small towns.

"Our system of having schools in all Kansas cities and towns fosters a sense of community that is probably one of the reasons why kids are so academically successful," said Pittsburg Superintendent Gary Price.

But if legislators are reluctant to consider consolidation and can't dissuade the Supreme Court from ordering another round of spending increases, they'll have to find new revenues to fund schools.

"They still have got the gun at our head in January," said Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler.

Tax increases are an obvious solution, though a proposal to raise sales and income taxes by $160 million died without a committee hearing in the Senate during the special session.

Gambling promoters argue that allowing casinos and permitting slot machines at dog and horse tracks could provide needed money, but they've failed every year for more than a decade to win legislative approval of their proposals.

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