School funding at center of Kansas governor’s race

? Democratic legislative leaders Tuesday sent letters to school officials warning them that if Republican Sam Brownback is elected governor they will face more cuts, tax increases and litigation.

But Brownback’s campaign denounced the assertion, leveling a broadside at “the party of Obama.”

“They can’t talk about their record. They can’t talk about their agenda — so they are making stuff up,” Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said about the Democrats. She said the school finance proposal that the Democrats are trying to link to Brownback would be vetoed by Brownback if he were elected governor.

Brownback, a U.S. senator, has said he wants to overhaul the school finance formula, but has declined to say how. Democrat Tom Holland, a state senator from Baldwin City, has said that the finance formula is fine the way it is and that he wants to restore recent budget cuts made to schools as the economy improves.

The election is Nov. 2.

On Tuesday, House Democratic Leader Paul Davis and Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka sent a letter to educators, saying, “We are asking you to sound the alarm in your district.”

In a news conference, the two said Brownback’s school finance plan will reduce state spending on schools and place a greater burden for school funding on local taxpayers.

They point to several statements Brownback has made and the recent unveiling of a school finance plan by House Speaker Pro Tem Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe.

Siegfreid’s plan would remove limitations on how much school districts could raise locally in property taxes, and it would eliminate “pupil weightings,” which provide additional state funds for certain kinds of students, such as those not doing well in school, and for certain situations, such as districts that have high transportation costs. It also would require districts to apply for grants to receive funding for at-risk and bilingual students and for vocational education programs.

Replacing those pupil weightings with local property taxes would cripple many districts, especially less-wealthy rural and urban districts, the Democrats said.

For example, a 1 mill school property tax increase in Galena, in southeast Kansas, would raise $13,000, while in the Shawnee Mission School District in Johnson County, it would raise more than $3 million.

The Lawrence district receives about $6 million per year in funding for at-risk and bilingual students.

“Sam Brownback wants to overhaul the formula and that scares me to death,” Hensley said.

The current school formula allows some disparities in funding, but to allow unlimited local tax funding would produce such great disparities, the state would end up in court, the Democrats said.

“We have to maintain some level of equalization,” Davis said. “What history has shown us is when we get too far off course, the courts have to step in,” he said.

But Jones-Sontag, Brownback’s spokeswoman, said Brownback did not support Siegfreid’s plan and that, as governor, Brownback would veto it if it reached his desk.

Brownback has said he wants to bring stakeholders together to work on a plan “that meets the state’s constitutional requirement of providing for a suitable education, provides for equalization, increases funding to the classroom, doesn’t force consolidation, and gives school districts more local control such as extending the teacher tenure track from three to five years and allowing more alternated teacher certification options.”

When told of that statement, Davis said, “the devil is in the details” and Hensley said the current school finance formula has been declared constitutional and needs only to be funded adequately.

After Hensley and Davis’ news conference, the House Republican leadership issued a news release saying the Democrats’ assertions were wrong.

“Senator Brownback and House Republicans oppose any scheme which raises property taxes over the objections of local taxpayers and we will oppose any plan that calls for a property tax increase,” said House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson.