Area school officials leery of governor’s plan

By Bryan Richardson

Gov. Sam Brownback’s school finance formula proposal would give four area school districts more money. So why are those districts’ superintendents leery of the plan?

They cited the removal of extra money for certain students, an increased reliance on local property taxes and what they consider a short-term funding bump as among concerns.

The proposal, currently under review in the Senate, would go into effect for the 2013-14 school year if passed this session.

Wamego USD 320, Rock Creek USD 323, Riley County USD 378 and Blue Valley USD 384 are among the districts deemed poor enough to receive additional money in the governor’s proposal. Manhattan USD 383 would maintain its same level of funding.

The four area districts would receive additional funds from the statewide 20 mill levy on property taxes; the increase is capped at 106 percent.

USD 384 Supt. Brady Burton said it is still early to tell the overall impact of the proposal even though details are on the table.

“That’s a concern for a superintendent,” Burton said. “There’s a plan, but it’ll be amended, and you don’t know until the dust settles.”

Area superintendents pointed out that the increase still doesn’t place them where they stood before the recession. Based on this school year’s numbers, the districts would receive the following increases. (The approximate decrease in funding during the last three school years is in parentheses.)

USD 320 – $549,595 increase ($1.5 million decrease).

USD 323 – $390,721 increase ($620,000 decrease).

USD 378 – $337,839 increase ($772,671 decrease).

USD 384 – $136,710 increase ($347,260 decrease).

“It doesn’t touch what’s been cut,” USD 378 Supt. Brad Starnes said. “It doesn’t help the things we’re looking to do to help our students in terms of buildings and technology.”

Starnes said the state cuts have led to a decrease in the amount spent on students despite an increase in local funding. From the 2008-09 school year to the 2011-12 school year, he said local funding has increased from $1.6 million to $1.9 million while the money spent per student has decreased from $11,787 to $11,268.

For the superintendents, it’s not about the initial funding increase; it’s about how the formula would play out in the future. “If we have to raise the money completely on our own, you’re talking about a very large property tax increase in the long run,” USD 323 Supt. Darrel Stufflebeam said.

Starnes and Stufflebeam applauded the motivation behind the governor’s effort, Stufflebeam describing it as “an honest attempt to simplify our system.” But Starnes said the end product “has created inequities.”

One source of inequity, he said, is the proposed removal of the local option budget cap. The governor’s plan does include a provision expanding the cap on poorer districts beyond 106 percent if a richer district increased its funding through local property taxes beyond 106 percent of the previous year’s funding.

But the superintendents caution that each district has a different capacity for increasing funding locally.

“Some districts can’t raise much locally,” Stufflebeam said. “Sometimes, the same size district can raise five, ten or twenty times more.”

Stufflebeam and USD 320 Supt. Denise O’Dea noted that another Pottawatomie school district, Kaw Valley USD 321, wouldn’t receive a funding increase in the proposal.

USD 320 with 1,419 full-time equivalent (FTE) student enrollment with kindergarten students has about 230 more students than USD 321. But O’Dea said her district can only raise $70,000 per mill while USD 321 can raise $230,000 per mill. The respective districts’ headquarters are separated by 13 miles.

“Your zip code shouldn’t determine the value of your education,” O’Dea said.

USD 323 (877.1 FTE) can raise $40,000 per mill, USD 378 (784.9 FTE) can raise $36,000 per mill and USD 384 (218.7 FTE) can raise $17,000 per mill.

“Money is not the only variable that determines how good a district is,” Stufflebeam said. “But it certainly goes a long way.”

The Brownback plan calls for an increase in base state aid per pupil from $3,780 to $4,492. The increase comes with a disclaimer; several of the weightings, which give a district more money for certain students, have been removed.

Stufflebeam said the proposal goes against the fundamental concepts set by courts that education should have similar quality regardless of wealth disparity. He said some students are more expensive to educate than others.

“It doesn’t take into account those specific needs,” he said.

Burton said he wasn’t sure how much the state base aid per pupil would increase in the future. “Our only new revenue would be if we increased in students or increased local property taxes,” he said.

Stufflebeam echoed Burton’s sentiments about the potential of state funding increases. “Obviously, the state could raise their funding, but the point of the governor’s plan, in my opinion, is to put the onus on local districts,” he said.

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