Archive for Tuesday, March 10, 2015

GOP plan to overhaul Kansas school aid could move quickly

March 10, 2015

— The chief financial officer in Kansas' largest school district is urging legislators to give more consideration to a plan from Republican leaders to overhaul how the state distributes aid to public schools and prevent unexpected budget surprises.

But the GOP-dominated Legislature isn't heeding the suggestion.

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to debate the plan Tuesday, a day after having a hearing and five days after GOP leaders unveiled the plan. The Senate Ways and Means Committee is holding its own hearing Tuesday, also with the intent of moving quickly.

"One of my main concerns is that this bill is on such a fast track," Jim Freeman, the chief financial officer for the 51,000-student Wichita school district, told the House committee. "I think it requires a lot more consideration."

Republican legislators' plan incorporates GOP Gov. Sam Brownback's proposal to jettison the current formula and give the state's 286 districts "block grants" based on their current aid, until the Legislature drafts a new formula.

Top Republicans want to move quickly because aid to public schools — at more than $4 billion — is the biggest item in the state budget. Legislators must close a budget shortfall projected at nearly $600 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that arose after they aggressively cut income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging to stimulate the economy.

"When this bill's passed, we'll be able to plug a number into that No. 1 expenditure that we'll have, and we'll have certainty there," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said after his committee's hearing. "Then we try to balance the budget from that point."

Local school officials and lobbyists for education groups testified Monday against the GOP legislators' plan. The educators said the state's current plan for distributing aid to school districts is sound and adjusts funding quickly when student populations change.

Brownback and many GOP legislators consider the existing formula overly complicated, but Freeman suggested the GOP plan, in a bill running 97 pages, also is "pretty complex."

Top Republicans have expressed frustration that the current formula can commit the state to unanticipated and automatic spending increases. The price tag for aid for the current school year jumped nearly $64 million after lawmakers set the state budget last year.

Kansas Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mike O'Neal cited the unanticipated bulge as an example of "results that border on the absurd" with the current formula. The Kansas Policy Institute, a small-government, free-market think tank, also supports GOP leaders' plan.

School districts would lose $51 million of the aid they had expected to receive before the end of June, though they'd still be getting more money for the current school year than in 2013-14. The plan would increase state aid in each of the next two school years, largely because of rising state contributions for teacher pensions.

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