Kansas Senate passes school funding bill, setting up conference negotiations with House

photo by: Peter Hancock

Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, and Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, study documents during debate Thursday, April 5, 2018, on a school funding bill that phases in a $274 million increase in K-12 education funding over five years.

? The Kansas Senate on Thursday narrowly passed its own version of a school finance bill that is considerably smaller than one passed by the House earlier in the week.

The 21-18 vote sets up a conference committee with the House.

Senate Bill 423 would phase in a $274 million increase in annual K-12 school funding over five years, or about half as much as the House bill proposes to add.

The Senate bill includes increases in the base per-pupil aid formula that pays for each school district’s general fund budget. It also adds new money to fund pilot programs for certain districts to work with medical providers and community mental health centers to offer mental health services to students with emotional or behavioral disorders.

On paper, the bill looks as if it adds considerably more money in base state aid, but Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, explained much of that is really existing money that is being shifted into base funding.

Specifically, the Senate plan would do away with what is currently known as “high enrollment weighting,” which sends additional money to large school districts to pay for their high administrative costs. And it reduces “low enrollment weighting,” which gives added funds to smaller districts that don’t enjoy the economies of scale that larger districts have.

The Senate plan takes that money and adds it into base funding. So, of the $130 in base per-pupil aid that the Senate plan appears to add over this year’s funding level, $101 is actually existing money that would be put into base aid, while only $29 would be new per-pupil funding.

“We are not pretending that this is new money, that this is different money that the schools haven’t received,” Baumgardner said while explaining the bill. “What we are saying is that since all school districts receive high or low enrollment weighting, it’s most appropriate for that to be in the base aid column.”

“It is, in my opinion, hocus-pocus,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, said during debate on the bill. “It’s just using existing revenues to try to make the base look higher. The base will be higher, I understand that. But I think it’s one of those accounting gimmicks the Supreme Court will look unfavorably on if that provision were to pass in a school finance plan.”

The current funding formula provides $4,006 in base per-pupil aid, and that is already scheduled to go up to $4,128 next year, under a school funding plan lawmakers passed last year that the Kansas Supreme Court later found to be inadequate.

The Senate bill would instead raise next year’s base aid to $4,258, which includes money now in the low and high enrollment weightings. Then it would gradually raise that to $4,574 over the next four years.

The House bill, by contrast, would raise base aid per-pupil to $4,718 after five years, without changing the low and high enrollment weightings.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, of Overland Park, said those funding amounts were actually calculated to raise graduation rates and student achievement levels on statewide reading and math exams, although not by as much as the Kansas State Board of Education has said the state’s goal should be.

“We actually coded that into the statute to let the courts know that we’re serious about satisfying their request,” Denning said.

According to an analysis by the Kansas State Department of Education, the Lawrence school district would see a $2.5 million increase in state funding next year under the Senate bill, compared with a $3.4 million increase under the House bill.

The Eudora school district would see a total increase of $423,133 under the Senate plan, compared with $563,985 under the House plan.

The Baldwin City school district would get a $420,133 increase under the Senate plan, compared with $419,623 under the House bill.

When the bill came up for a final vote, a preliminary count showed it failing, 19-17. Democrats opposed the bill, saying it did not provide enough new funding, while three conservative Republicans passed on the vote. Republican Sen. Rob Olson, of Olathe, was absent.

That brought about a “call of the Senate,” which requires all senators to be in their seats and cast a vote. But while Olson was said to be on his way to vote, two of the conservatives who had passed changed their votes to yes, while Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, changed her vote from no to yes, and then back to no again.

Earlier in the week, Republican leaders in the Senate had refused to let the bill come to the floor, insisting that they would only do so once both chambers of the Legislature passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would take away the authority of Kansas courts to review the adequacy of overall school funding.

But Denning and Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, dropped that demand Wednesday evening after the House Judiciary Committee voted to send such an amendment to the full House, even though House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Overland Park, said he did not plan to bring that measure to the floor of the House this week.