April 20, 2014

Local schools could win, lose based on finance tweaks

Danedri Thompson
dthompson@gardnernews.com
There will be winners and losers if the school finance formula is tweaked or rewritten, Gardner Edgerton School District Business Director, Eric Hansen, said.

Whether USD 231 or USD 230 are winners or losers depends on what adjustments, if any, are made to Kansas’ school finance formula.
One thing is certain: the existing formula is being batted around by politicians statewide this campaign season. Gubernatorial candidates U.S. Sen.Sam Brownback and state Sen. Tom Holland have both suggested changes be made to the formula.

Doug Schwin, Spring Hill School District Business Director, said he only hopes whatever changes will be made happen long before the end of next year’s legislative session.

“If there really is going to be a change to next year – 2011-2012, the sooner we know the better – especially if it’s going to create a situation where we will have to raise taxes to survive,” Schwinn said.

One proposal would likely lead to an increase in property taxes, Schwinn said.
Rep. Arlen Siegfried, R-Olathe, proposed school financing that would freeze base state aid per pupil and award districts grants for other programs. It would also increase the amount of money local school boards could raise through property tax bills.

“We could say more local control might make (Gardner Edgerton) a winner, but we also know if that happens, they’re going to have to control what kind of local aid the state has to match,” Hansen said. “Whatever you do, you’ve got to do something to equalize that aid across the board. Somehow you have to make it fair for the district in Johnson County. At the same time, it has to be fair for Stanton County or Greeley County across the state.”

Under the existing formula, there is a legislative ceiling to the amount of funds school boards can raise through local taxes. The Siegfried plan would eliminate the ceiling, but Schwinn said that wouldn’t necessarily mean blue skies for every district in the state.

“Just because we have more taxing authority that doesn’t mean we’ll be in a position to exercise it,” he said.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said increasing local budget control would lead to property tax increases and disparity.
“What we will see if we go in that direction is property tax increases, because local school boards will have no other way to fund their schools than to raise their mill levies,” he said.

However, Davis agreed that the current finance formula isn’t perfect.

“…But it has been tested in the courts, and the Kansas Supreme Court has said it’s Constitutional,” he said.

Holland said the new financing proposals are similarto proposals that lead to a lawsuit against the state in the early 1990s. That lawsuit lead to the creation of the existing school financing formula.

“Under the old formula, the one Sam Brownback wants to go back to, communities like Wichita had to raise their property taxes to pay for schools,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said. “The state had failed to fund schools, so local communities were raising taxes to keep the chalk in the tray and books on the shelf.”

For his part, Brownback has not endorsed Siegfried’s proposal. Brownback campaign spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said Brownback plans to study the existing funding formula.

“We understand there will be several proposals made by legislators and others on how the Kansas Legislature should resolve our state’s school finance formula issue,” she said. “Sen. Brownback and Dr. (Jeff) Colyer are anxious to hear more about all of them.”

Schwinn said school funding will likely continue to be a hot topic, because it impacts so many people.

“I’m going to wait and see how the November elections go and wait and see what happens when (legislators) get back in session,” Schwinn said. “Because right now, it’s kind of all speculation.”

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