The Kansas State Board of Education will get its first official look Tuesday at plans to revamp the state’s school finance formula.
Indications are that board members — and local taxpayers across the state — may be concerned by what they see.
Board members are scheduled to meet Tuesday with Landon Fulmer, Gov. Sam Brownback’s policy director, to talk about school finance. More details of the plan likely will be revealed at that meeting, but news reports based on interviews with Fulmer earlier this month offer a broad picture of what the administration is planning.
The proposal will include setting a new baseline (presumably lower) for state aid, giving district block grants and letting counties vote on a special sales tax for education. The state cap on local option budgets funded by local property taxes would be eliminated. The state would continue to levy a 20-mill property tax for schools, and would put a portion of that money in a state account, from which it could be distributed to equalize funding for districts with low property valuations.
Equalizing school funding for districts across the state was a key aspect of the current school finance formula, which was initiated in 1992. How well the new formula meets that goal will be of particular interest to the state courts, which seem likely to get involved in the school finance deliberations before all is said and done.
Of particular interest to local taxpayers is what looks like a significant policy shift that will give far more school funding responsibility to local governments. In some districts that’s not all bad, but for others, it could be devastating. It all depends on how much local taxpayers are willing to add to their tax bills to offset the state funding that has been lost. The state’s proposal apparently will offer two ways to do that: Without a state cap, districts can raise local property taxes as much as they dare to cover their operating costs; or they can ask voters to approve a local sales tax to support public schools.
Either way, local taxpayers will pay more.
Most Kansas counties — as well as many of the major cities in those counties — already levy local sales taxes of up to 2.25 percent. However, there’s a vast difference in how much money is collected by those taxes. A sales tax for schools would work well for Johnson County, which received $105 million in receipts on its 1.225 percent sales tax last year — much of that money from shoppers who don’t live in the county. The story is much different in, for instance, Cheyenne County in northwest Kansas, which received just $510,000 in revenue from its 2 percent sales tax last year. Eight of the nine counties in Kansas that have local sales taxes of 2 percent or more, have populations less than 7,000 and no cities that attract significant retail traffic. Even with some state subsidies, how high would those counties have to raise their sales tax or property tax to provide adequately for their schools?
Giving cities and counties more authority to raise money for schools allows communities that want and can afford to commit additional money to do so. However, it raises some real concerns about providing equal public education opportunities throughout the state and putting more pressure on local property and sales taxes, which fall disproportionately on lower-income residents.
Reduced state funding has forced school districts across the state to make many difficult financial decisions in recent years. Now that state tax revenues are rising, it would be too bad to make any changes that would make the funding situation for public schools worse instead of better.