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Kansas Lawmakers Eye Funds From Wealthy School Districts To Satisfy Supreme Court

Sam Zeff

Ever since the Kansas Supreme Court ruled education block grants unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to make school funding between districts equitable, many have wondered just how lawmakers will fix the problem before a June 30 deadline.

If the problem isn't fixed by then the Supreme Court says it will close down public education in Kansas.

Yesterday legislative leadership met to discuss taking money from property rich districts, like those in Johnson County, and moving those funds to property poor districts, like Kansas City, Kansas.

“It’s not easy right now. We’re trying to figure out a way to do that is fair. That’s the big problem, is making it fair,” says Rep. Ron Highland, chairman of the state House Education Committee.

Such a move would, essentially, reconstitute a portion of the old school funding formula that the Legislature killed last year in favor of the current block grant scheme. The Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) estimates that it could cost more than $70 million to make district equity constitutional.

But Gov. Sam Brownback and most legislative leaders have said they have no appetite for raising taxes to satisfy the high court.

“The finding more money right now in this situation is going to be difficult if not impossible," says Highland. "So yes, what we’re looking at is a way to make it more equitable which means the rich districts are going to have to help the poor districts, some why or another.”

Shawnee Mission School District Superintendent Jim Hinson has been warning for months that the district stands to lose million of dollars before the end of the fiscal year.

“It is highly possible at this point in time, based on the current discussions, that we could lose millions of dollars in the Shawnee Mission School District," Hinson said in a video posted to the district's YouTube channel.

Up until now, he didn't give any details as to why. Now, he says, this is exactly the scenario he feared. Hinson says if lawmakers decide to move money between districts, Shawnee Mission could lose $4 million or more.

He also says the district is already straining right now to find $4 million to cover an increase in health care, utilities and other expenses. Block grants froze district budgets at 2014 levels.

The Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) says it's now running spread sheets trying to figure out which districts get more money and which districts lose money. But this is not the organization's preferred way to solve the equity problem. 

“We’re always of a position that we would prefer that you solve these issues by adding dollars so that no one is disadvantaged,” says KASB Associate Executive Director Mark Tallman.

He says while conservative Republicans don't want to raise taxes, Kansans may have a different idea. “It just seems to us that there is a kind of growing frustration around the state that we’re not able to satisfy basic government functions in a way we should be able to do,” says Tallman.

It appears that even some conservative lawmakers are growing frustrated. Rep. Sue Boldra, a Republican from Hays, spoke up after a meeting of the House Education Committee Wednesday. She wanted to know when the committee was going to deal with the Supreme Court ruling.

She worries that if the Legislature fails to come up with a plan that the Supreme Court approves and schools are shut down, small towns all over Kansas will be harmed.

“If people aren’t buying school clothes, if they’re not buying school supplies, if you’re not paying teachers and cooks and everyone you destroy those communities," Boldra says. "Many of those communities, they’re finances are based on the school district.”

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR 89.3. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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