Archive for Thursday, March 5, 2015

Top Kansas GOP lawmakers to unveil school funding proposal

March 5, 2015

— Top Republicans in the Kansas Legislature are preparing to outline their plan for overhauling how the state distributes money to public schools, a key issue as lawmakers work to close a projected budget shortfall.

The chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees have scheduled a Thursday morning news conference at the Statehouse to discuss the school funding bill they've drafted. Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., of Olathe, and Sen. Ty Masterson, of Andover, were to be joined by other Republican legislative leaders.

They did not provide details before the event. But their bill was expected to include Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's proposal to junk the state's existing formula for distributing $3.6 billion in aid and give local districts block grants while legislators write a new formula.

Ryckman and Masterson also have said their bill will keep districts' local property taxes at current levels and will give them more flexibility in using reserve funds.

Top Republicans also said they're looking to create stability in school funding. They're hoping to eliminate a projected budget deficit of nearly $600 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1 while preserving aggressive income tax cuts enacted at Brownback's urging in 2012 and 2013 to stimulate the economy.

Aid to public schools is the single biggest item in the state budget and consumes more than half of the state's general tax revenues.

Brownback and other GOP conservatives acquiesced last year to a big increase in aid to poor school districts when the Kansas Supreme Court ordered it to do so in response to a lawsuit filed in 2010 by parents and districts. But after making the commitment, top Republicans received what they've described as a frustrating surprise — a price tag that was $64 million higher than they expected.

The current funding formula bases aid on the number of students in each district. It puts the state on the hook when more students than expected enroll or a higher-than-anticipated percentage of them are needy, but also when districts buy new equipment or supplement their state dollars with local property taxes.

Brownback last month announced plans to trim $28 million from public schools' aid to help balance the current budget. Even with that move, total state aid — at almost $3.7 billion, excluding contributions for teacher pensions — would be $181 million, or 5.2 percent, higher than during the 2013-14 school year.

His plan for grants would freeze the aid at $3.6 billion for each of the next two school years, roughly the level that GOP legislators thought they were promising last year. Educators see it as a cut.

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