Bipartisan school finance plan introduced in Senate

? A bipartisan plan to increase funding to schools by $100 million over the next two years emerged Friday in the Senate and immediately came under fire from Gov. Sam Brownback.

The proposal has been crafted by the leaders of the Senate Education Committee — Chairwoman Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, Vice Chair John Vratil, R-Leawood, and ranking Democratic Anthony Hensley of Topeka — and stands in stark contrast to Brownback’s push to overhaul the school finance formula.

Schodorf said, “School finance is not just about a formula — it’s also about funding. Our plan not only makes a down-payment on restoring funding to our classrooms, but is also a wise investment in the future.”

A hearing on the proposal, Senate Bill 450, will be held at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday before the Senate Education Committee.

After several years of cutting base state aid per pupil to its lowest level in a decade, the measure would increase base state aid by $50 million for each of the next two years.

That would result in increasing base state aid per student from $3,780 to $3,854 in the 2012-13 school year, and then to $3,928 in the 2013-14 school year, for a total increase of $148 for base state aid per pupil. The Lawrence school district would receive nearly $2.1 million more in additional funds under the proposal.

Funding for the measure would come from the state’s projected ending balance for the next fiscal year, which is currently expected to be about $390 million.

The proposal would also allow school districts to increase the local portion of their budgets supported by local property taxes from 31 percent of base state aid to 33 percent next year and then 35 percent the year after that. These increases would be subject to protest petitions and a public vote.

Brownback, a Republican, has proposed revamping the school finance formula to eliminate state limits on local property taxes for education. His plan also includes no increase for the next school year and would junk the current system of providing additional funding, or weights, for specific educational circumstances, such as teaching children who have not yet learned English.

“Our state’s current funding formula is broken,” said Brownback’s spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag. “More money without reform is not the solution,” she said.

But key legislators have said Brownback’s plan should be held over for a year to provide time for additional study. In addition to pumping in more dollars, SB 450 would continue the current system of weighted funding.

Sen. Vratil said adequately funding schools was vital to the state. “Ultimately, this is about economic growth, jobs and local control,” he said.

Hensley said schools have endured seven rounds of cuts in three years. “As a result, local school boards have been forced to increase fees, increase class sizes and increase local property taxes just to make ends meet. It’s time we begin restoring the cuts to public schools immediately,” he said.

Hensley predicted that the proposal would have a good chance of passing in the Senate, but its chances seemed iffy at best in the House.

House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said he didn’t like the new proposal.

He said last year the Legislature gave school districts the flexibility to spend money from various fund balances, and little of that money was spent. He said that means the need for additional funding is not there.

“We’re throwing money at a problem that doesn’t exist,” O’Neal said.

But Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas-National Education Association, said schools must maintain many of those fund balances to plan for funding shortages at other times of the year. Plus, he said, spending down those balances provides one-time funding, which doesn’t help with ongoing budget expenses.

House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence said increased funding for schools was warranted and there was little support for Brownback’s plan. “It would be a shame for us to leave this session without doing something progressive for school finance,” he said.