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How Everyone Is Right And Everyone Is Wrong On Kansas School Finance

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

This week I did a story on a group of Democrats and moderate Republicans who are already working on a new school finance formula in advance of the 2017 session which will gavel in come January.

The story was based on an interview I did with Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly from Topeka on KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Kelly is the senate minority whip.

After she mentioned this small working group, I asked whether the conservative plan put forth near the end of last session might be reintroduced next year.

Here's what she said: "I think that's dead on arrival because one of the things that it does is raise you property taxes by 15 mills. So I don't think anybody is going to want to touch that."

The bill in question would, in fact, raise property taxes collected by counties on behalf of the state from 20 mills to 35 mills.

But, I soon discovered, much depends on what you mean by "raise property taxes."

Here's part of an email I received from Dave Trabert, head of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank: "Laura Kelly made a false claim in your story about property taxes increasing under HB 2741."

HB 2741 is the conservative rewrite of the school funding formula put forth by the chairmen of the House and Senate Education Committees. It died at the end of the session. (Here's my story on the bill.)

Trabert goes on to say thathis analysis showed that even though the mill levy would go up, some other property taxes would be eliminated, and thus, there would be a statewide decline in the amount of property taxes home owners paid by at least $49 million and maybe as much as $113 million.

"I’m going to write about her false claim but would like to include that KCUR called her on it.  Please let me know soon if you will report Senator Kelly’s false claim," Trabert wrote.

Credit Courtesy Dave Trabert
A graph from Trabert's analysis claims that mill rates would actually decrease for a large majority of school districts under the new school funding formula.

Trabert's analysis, according to some educators, is right. But it makes some important assumptions. 

You can read his whole analysis for a complete explanation. He makes some interesting points.  But what's important in this discussion is the asterisk at the bottom and phrase "includes implementation of efficiency measures."

These measures would, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards, not allow any state aid to be spent on food service or extracurricular activities. It would also have districts join a statewide health insurance pool, with a claimed savings of $80 million, and force districts to spend some cash reserves.

KASB says that if districts want to continue to subsidize food service or pay for things like football and band, they would have to hike property taxes.  "If school districts just maintained current levies, then overall property taxes would go up for most Kansans," Kelly says.  

So, it turns out, everybody can be right on this issue depending on how you cut the numbers. Proving once again that school finance is, perhaps, the most difficult and contentious issue in Kansas.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. 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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