Kansas lawmakers work on school funding plans

SCHOOL FUNDING

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Two legislative budget committees approved competing plans Tuesday night for increasing aid to poor Kansas school districts while trimming other education funding, and allowing local districts to levy additional property taxes.

The separate bills from the Senate Ways and Means Committee and House Appropriations Committee represented attempts to satisfy a recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling that required more funding for poor districts. Each chamber expects to debate its committee’s plan later this week.

Republicans in each GOP-dominated chamber conceded that lawmakers probably aren’t done tinkering, but they said each plan is designed to help poor school districts while preventing a big increase in the budget. The starting point for each plan is pouring an additional $129 million into aid for those districts to offset past, recession-era cuts.

“We’re trying to hit a happy medium, kind of a responsible medium,” said Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican and vice chairman of the House committee.

Democrats pushed to spend the money without other changes in how the state funds schools, using the state’s cash reserves to cover the cost. They were critical of Republicans’ reducing the total cost of each plan by trimming school aid elsewhere and reducing other parts of the state budget.

Complicating matters was a tight schedule, with lawmakers preparing to start a three-week recess on Friday. Legislative leaders have said they would like the school matter settled before returning in late April to finish any remaining business.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback said he remains confident that lawmakers can pass a single plan this week.

“I think we’re really pretty close,” the governor told The Associated Press. “Given the nature of these things, I think it’s really pretty close.”

He added: “Everybody’s trying to calibrate the agreement to be able to fix what the court had said, get as much money into the classroom as possible and be able to sustain it long-term in the budget.”

Under both plans, districts would be allowed to raise the amount of property taxes generated locally to a cap of 33 percent of their total budget, subject to public vote. The state would chip in another dollop of aid to poor districts to help them — $5 million in the Senate committee plan, or $12 million in the House plan.

Each plan also relies on budget adjustments of roughly $80 million outside of spending on public schools to erase any effects on the overall budget.

The Supreme Court ruled March 7 in an education funding lawsuit, giving legislators until July to fix two funds that help equalize spending among poorer school districts. The court ruled the state’s funding of those programs was unconstitutional.

But funding for virtual schools would be cut by between $3 million and $5 million by making adjustments to reimbursements districts get for providing the courses. Districts also would no longer receive additional funds for opening new buildings in the 2014-2015 school year.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat on the Senate budget committee, said the “accounting tricks” would not satisfy the court order and would create more legal challenges.

“I just think we are moving it from Peter’s pot to put in Paul’s pot,” Kelly said.

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AP Political Writer John Hanna contributed to this report.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org .

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