Topeka A huge battle over school funding started Wednesday as Gov. Sam Brownback unveiled a finance overhaul that would let local taxpayers raise property taxes as high as they wanted for education.
“Our proposal is a modern formula that will provide districts the flexibility that is necessary to meet today’s challenges, prepare tomorrow’s opportunities and excel in education,” Brownback said in a prepared statement.
But Brownback’s plan quickly came under fire. Advocates for school funding said the proposal failed to restore cuts, that it would spread dollars in an unequal manner and would result in some districts being left in the dust.
“Under the Brownback plan, school funding will be permanently locked in at an inadequately low level despite increasing state revenue,” said Karen Godfrey, vice president of the Kansas NEA. “There will be no adjustments for increases due to inflation. If there’s any change in a school’s demographics, Brownback is saying, ‘too bad,’” she said.
State Board of Education member Janet Waugh, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kan., said: “I’m really concerned about my districts. They are already in serious trouble. Raising the local effort would be extremely challenging.”
But several others on the board praised Brownback’s proposal, saying it would create stability in funding.
“It appears there has been a really strong effort to make the formula fair, and it is infinitely more understandable than the current formula, and remarkably it increases funding for education during a very difficult time,” said board member Kenneth Willard, a Republican from Hutchinson.
Big fight awaits
Brownback’s push to change the way the state distributes approximately $3 billion per year to schools is sure to be one of the biggest fights of the 2012 legislative session, which starts Jan. 9.
The divide over the issue started to emerge at a meeting of the State Board of Education as Brownback’s policy director Landon Fulmer laid out the proposal.
Currently, school districts may increase through local property taxes an amount up to approximately 30 percent of its state aid.
But Brownback’s plan would remove that cap, allowing for “unlimited local control of property taxes for educational purposes.”
The proposal would also do away with “weightings” that are used to provide school districts additional funds for transportation costs, bilingual education, students who are at risk of failing and other factors that increase the cost of education. Brownback said his plan would provide additional funding through a “supplemental equalization fund” and give school superintendents more discretion in how dollars are spent.
Brownback proposes delaying implementation of the plan until the 2013-14 school year and leaving in place for one more school year the current level of base state aid of $3,780 per pupil, which is the lowest level in a decade.
Once the new plan is put into place, Brownback said it will cost an additional $45 million in base state aid, which is approximately 2 percent more than what is spent now. Under the plan, no district would receive less money than it receives currently, and about half would receive more, he said.
Lawrence stays the same after years of cuts
According to a spreadsheet of funding for school districts provided by the governor’s office, the Lawrence school district would see no change in its total funding between the current formula and the one being proposed by Brownback. In addition, Baldwin City would see no increase.
But those amounts could go up if the local school boards approved local property tax increases. Eudora would have an increase of $615,286 in a nearly $11 million budget under Brownback’s plan.
Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll said he was disappointed that after three years of drastic cuts, there is “no real new money flowing into it at all.”
He said removing the cap on local dollars helps Lawrence but will cause funding inequities across the state. He said he was glad that Brownback canned an earlier proposal to allow local sales tax increases for schools.
Many of the state’s larger, urban and suburban districts with high concentrations of low-income families or students requiring help with learning English would receive no additional funds from the state under the plan.
Mark Tallman, a representative of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that was a problem.
He said the Brownback plan had “a lack of sensitivity” to changing student populations. If a district were to start seeing an increase in at-risk students, “nothing in this formula would respond to that,” he said.
Small, rural districts fare better
Small, rural and low-property-wealth districts did better under the Brownback plan than larger districts with large numbers of low-income students, he said.
Several Education Board members also said that Brownback’s so-called “hold harmless” provision, where no district gets less funding than current levels, isn’t adequate because schools have suffered significant cuts in base state aid over the past several years.
Democrats say Brownback off base
Brownback, a Republican, however, pushed his proposal, saying, “Our current K-12 funding formula is broken.”
“We believe the governor is focused on the wrong problem. The current formula doesn’t need to be fixed, just funded,” said Kansas Democratic Party Chair Joan Wagnon.
Some education advocates have been wary of proposals giving local districts more authority to raise taxes, saying that will increase the gap between rich and poor districts and make the finance system unconstitutional. Brownback said his plan will distribute the state-mandated property tax of 20 mills in a way that will help equalize funding between rich and poor districts.
A group of school districts suing the state has said the current school finance formula is OK but the state has failed to fund it at an adequate level.
Fulmer, the governor’s policy director, criticized the lawsuit, saying the state simply doesn’t have the $700 million to $1 billion that the districts say is required.
Brownback has said he wants to change the formula to break the cycle of litigation, but the attorney representing the suing school districts and students said Brownback’s plan would invite more litigation.
John Robb said Brownback’s proposal moves away from a cost-based system, eliminates “weights” to provide funding to children whose education costs more, freezes budgets for schools over half the state, and allows unlimited local taxation without statewide equalization.
“In medicine they say, ‘First, do no harm.’ This does harm to Kansas kids,” he said.