Archive for Friday, March 3, 2006

Senators propose $660M school plan

Critics question where money will come from

March 3, 2006


— Senate leaders on Thursday proposed a $660 million school finance plan that attempts to improve public education and satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court, but it requires some effort from local school districts.

The proposal is larger than a plan introduced last week by House leaders that would increase school funding by $500 million, but both plans are based on a framework agreed to by legislative leaders and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

And like the House plan, senators pay for the increases through existing state revenues, though key leaders acknowledged the plan could break the state's bank in only two years.

"While revenues have been higher than projected this year, we will be in pressing need of new dollars in the out years if we are to sustain these significant increases in state aid to schools," said Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton. "We will need to explore all possibilities."

Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, questioned the lack of dedicated funding for the plan.

"When I go to town to buy a tractor, I generally have my money with me. We got something lined up? I don't see how we pay for any one of these," he said.

The Senate plan, like the House plan, is a response to orders issued last year by the state Supreme Court in a six-year-old lawsuit.

Last year, under pressure from the court, legislators increased spending on public schools by $290 million, or more than 10 percent. But the justices deemed the action acceptable only for "interim purposes."

Budget projections from legislators' staff suggest that while the state can afford a big increase in spending on schools during the fiscal year that begins July 1, the additional aid, absent new revenues, would cause serious budget problems after that, with a shortfall appearing as early as fiscal 2008.

About 40 conservative House and Senate Republicans declared both plans fiscally irresponsible.

"It's not about the numbers," said Sen. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler. "Clearly none of the plans balance."

Huelskamp and other conservatives argued that the real issue is an "activist" Supreme Court forcing large spending increases, and they said legislators should vote on constitutional changes to rein in the judiciary first.

Rep. Don Dahl, R-Hillsboro, said support for a big plan was eroding.

"It's falling apart," he said. "There's a lot of disgruntled people."

With 2006 being an election year and with legislators' opposition to tax increases, the only real option would be expanding gambling, a topic senators have been discussing privately in recent weeks.

Senate Vice President John Vratil said none of the multiyear plans were "a guarantee" of future funding increases, adding that legislators could divert from the charted course, as with any initiative.

"It's an indication of what you intend to do," said Vratil, R-Leawood.

Senators introduced the school finance bill in their budget committee, then reviewed the plan along with the House version in the Senate Education Committee. Hearings on the Senate version begin next week.

House members finished two days of hearings on their plan, with possible action Friday to send it to the full House for debate.

The Senate plan puts $180 million in school funding in the first year, plus $70 million more through changes in a law allowing districts to raise additional local property taxes, for a total increase of more than $250 million. Schools currently receive more than $3 billion from the state each year.

The House plan commits $175 million in new state dollars to schools in its first year, but more than $69 million would go to programs for at-risk students.

"This bipartisan starting point sets the stage for historic debate this legislative session about how our state will pay the cost of educating our kids," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards said the Senate plan is encouraging because it is larger than the House plan. But he was baffled by the provisions dealing with property taxes.

The Senate proposal also creates a provision for districts with high concentrations of students in poverty, giving five districts an additional $10 million for programs to help such students succeed in school. House members have a similar proposal that helps six districts. A Legislative Division of Post Audit cost study released in January recommended the concept to boost student achievement in poor, urban districts.

Senators would give additional funds to the five districts with the highest percentage of students receiving free lunches: Dodge City, Kansas City, Liberal, Topeka and Wichita. House members would use a population density formula to distribute the poverty aid to six districts: Hutchinson, Kansas City, Leavenworth, Piper, Topeka and Wichita.

"The children of Kansas are the clear winners under this proposal," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. "It provides long-term investment in improving the quality of education for our children, regardless of their special needs, their family's income or where they live."


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