Archive for Wednesday, March 30, 2005

School finance bill goes to governor

March 30, 2005


— Lawmakers sent a plan increasing annual aid to public schools by up to $127 million to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday, even though some legislators expressed doubt it would satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court's mandate to improve public education.

The House voted 76-48 to approve the plan, a compromise drafted by legislative negotiators. The Senate passed it Friday, 23-12.

The Supreme Court gave legislators until April 12 to satisfy its order to improve education, primarily by increasing funding and making the distribution of dollars more fair. Sebelius said Wednesday that while she doesn't endorse the bill, she will let it become law without her signature so the court can review it.

Sebelius declined to say if she thinks the plan will satisfy the court.

"That's really not my decision to make. I don't think it's very fiscally responsible," Sebelius said.

The measure would increase aid to all school districts and provide additional dollars for special education, bilingual education and programs that help students who are at risk of failing. It also gives school districts the authority to raise local property taxes to supplement state dollars. Those taxes could raise a total of $485 million a year statewide.

Critics, mostly Sebelius' fellow Democrats, said the plan would help wealthy districts, making the distribution of state aid less fair. They also said legislators ignored an admonition in the court's Jan. 3 ruling to avoid decisions based on politics and other factors "not relevant to education."

Eight Republicans voted against the bill, including Rep. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, who predicted the bill would be rejected by the court. Owens said legislators were too entrenched against raising taxes to improve education.

But Republican leaders insisted the plan would satisfy the court, whatever its politics.

"Everything we do up here is political," said House Education Committee Kathe Decker, R-Clay Center. "We can't get away from it. I do believe it answers many of the court's concerns."

The plan would rely on existing state revenues and cash reserves to increase general aid to all 301 school districts and provide new dollars to specific programs. But critics said the plan left districts with the choice of raising local property taxes instead of providing an adequate increase in state aid.

Under the plan, the state aid to schools would increase by $116.2 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1. However, negotiators inserted language to allow an additional $11 million if revenue projections for the coming fiscal year are favorable.

School districts would be allowed to raise through local property taxes funding worth 27 percent of their general operating budget in the 2005-06 school year, increasing to 30 percent in 2007-08. The current cap is 25 percent.

Rep. Bruce Larkin, D-Baileyville, said the plan hurts poor districts, which can't raise local property taxes as much as their wealthy cousins.

Seventeen districts with housing prices at or above 125 percent of the state average would be allowed to raise property taxes by an additional 5 percent. The Department of Education calculates higher property taxes would provide more money to those 17 districts than increasing state aid.

"I don't know how the wealthy districts can't be happy, because the rich got all the money," said Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City.

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