Wealthy school districts at center of Kansas funding dispute

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

Kansas legislative leaders preparing for a June 23 special session to discuss school funding say they plan to resolve the issue as quickly as possible to avoid school closures on July 1, and whether wealthy school districts lose part of their aid to poorer ones will be a key topic.

The state’s Supreme Court ruled last month that the Legislature’s plan for distributing more than $4 billion a year in aid to its 286 school districts is unfair to poorer districts. The court gave the lawmakers until June 30 to find a solution.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback on Wednesday endorsed a proposal to increase funding for schools by $38 million to help poorer districts, a move that would withdraw some state aid from wealthier districts and, in turn, increase their property taxes.

State Department of Education data shows that the fix would reduce aid to 96 local districts. As a result, the three biggest districts in Johnson County — Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe — would lose a total of nearly $4.8 million a year.

Brownback said that such a measure might have to include policy provisions popular with conservatives to make it more palatable for the Republican-led Legislature. For example, in 2014, GOP legislators complied with a demand from the court to increase aid to poor school districts but lured conservatives’ votes with numerous policy provisions, including one ending guaranteed tenure for teachers

Many conservative lawmakers oppose state-adopted academic standards called Common Core, and legislation to eliminate them or scale them back might be attractive to those legislators and gain their funding votes this year.

However, several Republican lawmakers who have advocated scrapping Common Core in the past told The Associated Press they plan to save other issues for the next legislative session.

“I would be happy to see Common Core repealed,” said Rep. Randy Powell, an Olathe Republican. But he said it’s not a main concern for lawmakers. “Realistically, I think they’re looking at getting something done quickly in Topeka and then getting out of there.”

Lawmakers from wealthier districts say it would be difficult to vote for an equalization measure that would disproportionately affect their school districts.

Republican Sen. Greg Smith, of Overland Park, represents parts of three school districts — Shawnee Mission, Olathe and DeSoto — that stand to lose nearly $2.7 million in aid under the plan embraced by Brownback.

“I can’t support anything that takes money away from the students in my district,” Smith said.

Rep. Erin Davis, an Olathe Republican, has two children in public schools and said she would also prefer that the district not lose funding.

“It would be a tough pill to swallow if what our remedy is is taking money out of the Olathe School District,” Davis said. “Holding Olathe School District harmless would be my desired outcome … I don’t know if that would ultimately be what’s presented for us to vote on or not.”

Several GOP lawmakers called the high court’s threat to close schools an encroachment on legislative powers.

Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican, said he plans to abstain from voting during the special session because he thinks the state already spends too much money on K-12 education.

“We’re done and I don’t care whether the Kansas Supreme Court likes it or not. I don’t intend to vote to change it in any way,” Rubin said.

— AP reporter John Hanna contributed to this story.