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Kansas KS Senate Committee Hears Testimony on K-12 School Funding Change

Stephen Koranda

A Kansas Senate committee is looking at rewriting part of the public school funding formula. The Legislature passed a bill increasing one type of school aid last year, but when it was all said and done, the cost had risen beyond their initial estimates. Kansas Public Radio’s Stephen Koranda reports the bill would change how it's calculated and reduce that type of education spending by $40 million dollars.

At a hearing on the bill, some lawmakers and Kansas school officials couldn’t agree on whether this plan is a funding cut. Republican Senator Ty Masterson, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, says the state is still increasing the aid, just not as much. Here he is explaining it to reporters.

“If I anticipated I was going to earn $100,000 in a year, but at end of the year I only earned 90 or 95, did my pay get cut? No, it did not, I had less than I anticipated,” says Masterson.

But to many schools it sure feels like a cut. The money would come out of their current budget mid-year.

“It’s like, in the middle of a football game, the rules have changed,” says Julie Ford.  She’s the superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, which would lose nearly $900,000.

She says they built their budget with that money included, and without it they may have to cut services their students need.

“Special education, we’re an urban district, 20 percent of our kids are special education. Bilingual ed services for our ELL students. It’s kind of a no-win situation for school districts,” says Ford.

The money in question is just a part of school funding. It’s supposed to benefit districts that have lower property values, meaning it’s more difficult for them to raise money through local property taxes.

Senator Masterson argues that this part of the formula is broken because it’s sending millions of dollars to some districts in Johnson County and not every poorer school district.

“So you are asking these poor districts, taxpayers of our state, to subsidize two of the richest districts in our state. Two that can raise the most amount of money with a single mill, and live in very affluent areas,” says Masterson.

The formula is based on property values divided by the number of students. So some small school districts can have more property value per student than some larger districts in areas like Johnson County.

But Democratic Senator Anthony Hensley, says the change would not just affect wealthy districts.

“But in reality, the vast number of school districts that are affected by this bill are the state's poorest school districts, both urban and rural,” says Hensley.

Dave Trabert, with the conservative think tank the Kansas Policy Institute, was the only person to testify in favor of the bill. He says schools can pay for this funding decrease with reserves instead of cuts.

“And a lot of that is available to be pulled down and used for whatever they want. These changes can be absorbed,” says Trabert.

A staff member for the Topeka school district said much of their reserves are already earmarked for other purposes.

Mark Tallman, with the Kansas Association of School Boards, says if you’re going to make changes to the formula, make them take effect in the coming years, not the current year.

“Then at least every school board will know what the new school formula is and hopefully how to budget for it,” says Tallman.

The next step in the process will be the Senate Ways and Means Committee debating and possibly modifying the bill.

Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse Bureau Chief for Kansas Public Radio.