Archive for Thursday, March 31, 2005

Schools plan goes to Sebelius amid doubts about contents

March 31, 2005


— A $127 million boost in education funding drafted by Republican lawmakers is an "an insult" that fails to meet a Kansas Supreme Court order to improve the state's public schools, the attorney who won that decision says.

"It is so inadequate it is an insult to every school kid in Kansas," Wichita attorney Alan Rupe said Wednesday. "It is an insult to the Constitution of Kansas. They've just fallen so far short of what their obligation is."

Rupe's reaction came hours after lawmakers sent to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius a plan drafted by legislative negotiators that would increase annual state spending on schools by $127 million, using existing revenues and cash reserves. The House approved it 76-48; the Senate passed it last week.

The vote caps efforts at the Statehouse to address the Supreme Court's Jan. 3 ruling, which gave legislators until April 12 to improve education in Kansas, primarily by increasing funding and making the distribution of dollars more fair.

"I do believe it answers many of the court's concerns," said House Education Committee Chairwoman Kathe Decker, R-Clay Center.

Sebelius said she would allow the bill to become law without her signature and will send it immediately to the court. Despite her own misgivings, she declined to speculate how the justices would react.

"I still see no long-term plan, especially in funding public education for years to come," Sebelius said. "In the end, this bill fails Kansas children, fails their families and fails our schools."

Republican leaders countered that the plan represents the largest increase in school spending since 1992.

"I think anyone that thinks they know what the court will do is guessing," said House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka. "There is really no way to tell. We feel fairly comfortable. And we'll find out sometime soon."

A summary of the $127 million school finance plan approved by legislators:BASE STATE AID: Eliminates additional dollars for districts with more than 1,725 students and reduces funding for smaller districts. The resulting savings allow base state aid to increase by $244 per pupil, to $4,107. Adds up to $115 more per pupil to base aid, raising it to $4,222.AUTOMATIC INCREASES: Beginning with the 2007-2008 school year, ties funding increases to the Consumer Price Index. Requires legislators to spend the state's first general revenues on education before other government programs.AT-RISK FUNDING: Adds $26 million to programs assisting students at risk of failing in school. Adds an additional $2 million if money is available.BILINGUAL EDUCATION: Adds $11 million to programs for students with limited English language proficiency.SPECIAL EDUCATION: Provides an additional $17.7 million in 2005-2006 to cover 85 percent of the excess costs required to provide special education services. Increases figure to 88 percent of excess costs in 2006-2007, costing $24 million more, and 91 percent in 2007-2008, costing another $25 million.LOCAL PROPERTY TAXES: Allows districts to raise local property taxes to raise an amount equaling 27 percent of their state-set general operating budgets in 2005-2006, 29 percent in 2006-2007 and 30 percent in 2007-2008.COST OF LIVING INCREASES: Allows districts with housing costs that are 125 percent or more of the state average to raise local property taxes equal to another 5 percent of their general operating budgets.OVERSIGHT: Creates a commission to review ongoing trends in education and the needs of Kansas school districts.SKILLS FOR SUCCESS: Establishes a $20 million grant program to help schools to improve math and reading scores, with the money coming from the state's share of a national settlement of lawsuits with tobacco companies.

Representing parents and administrators in the Dodge City and Salina school districts, Rupe sued the state in 1999, contending the state's existing school finance system is unconstitutional. He said Wednesday he plans to renew his request that the court appoint a special master -- or expert -- to devise a short-term fix.

A special master is needed because, he said, "The Legislature doesn't have the backbone to do it."

The measure passed Wednesday would increase aid to all school districts and provide additional dollars for special education, bilingual education and programs for students who are at risk of failing. It also gives school districts the authority to raise local property taxes. 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 ruling to avoid decisions based on politics and other factors "not relevant to education."

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said if the justices accept plan passed by the Legislature, "They weren't serious to start with."

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, said Decker, "Everything we do up here is political. We can't get away from it."

Under the plan, the state aid to schools would increase by $116.2 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1. 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 use local property taxes to raise 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.

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.

In other action:

-- A bill allowing casinos in five areas and slot machines at dog and horse tracks won the endorsement of a Senate committee, with supporters pitching it as a way to raise new dollars for education.

-- A top higher education official described a proposed $11.2 billion budget drafted by legislative negotiators as positive for state universities, but a union didn't like how it treats state employees.

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