School aid proposal is frowned on

By Bryan Richardson

Despite different party affiliations, local legislators united in concern Wednesday about funding for K-123 education.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposed two-year budget, presented to lawmakers Wednesday, calls for the base state aid per pupil to remain at $3,838 in FY 2014 and then increase to $3,852 in FY 2015.

The proposal’s release comes after Friday’s ruling from the Shawnee County District Court that the state must boost its base aid per pupil to $4,492 in order to meet the statutory requirements. The court cited a 2006 Kansas Supreme Court decision.

Rep. Tom Phillips, a Republican, said he wants a gradual increase to the amount stipulated by the court.

“With the economy rebounding, we need to at least restore the cuts that occurred, and show to the courts and our public that we’re making a good faith effort at adequately funding public education,” he said.

It would cost the state $440 million to get the base state aid per pupil to $4,492. If that amount was enacted for this school year, USD 383 would have received an additional $6.23 million.

However, the Brownback administration has no plan to go forth with that. Instead, the state is appealing the court’s decision to the Kansas Supreme Court, which isn’t expected to rule for at least a year.

Rep. Sydney Carlin, a Democrat, said she was disappointed but not surprised that the governor recommended a flat base state aid per pupil. “We’re going to be in that situation for a while,” she said, citing Brownback efforts to reduce the state’s income tax. “The tax policy is costing us,” she said.

Sen. Tom Hawk, a Democrat, said the state is at the same juncture as it was in 2005 when the first school funding case was heard. The state had a special session that summer to provide more education funding.

Although it’s a similar situation, Hawk said the way it will be handled has changed. “The practical application of forming a coalition in the legislature that will respond like we did in 2005 is fairly remote,” he said, citing a majority of conservative Republicans who prefer to fight the court.

While local legislators are focused on restoring the $620 cut to the base state aid per pupil from 2008-09 to 2011-12, the administration is looking at the increased overall spending in education.

Budget director Steve Anderson said the school funding has been increasing, but it hasn’t been getting in the classroom. State funding would increase $75.6 million over the next two fiscal years under the proposal.

“It’s not how much we spend,” Anderson said. “It’s how much we get for what we spend. The lunacy must stop.”

The Legislature is expected to consider amending the state constitution to stipulate that only the legislature and not the courts can determine school funding levels. A constitutional amendment would have to go to a public vote.

With 49 new members to the House, Phillips said he doesn’t have a feel for the level of support for that change. “There are talks in the halls but not a clear direction yet,” he said.

Phillips said he wouldn’t vote for an amendment based on his current interpretation of the discussion.

“That’s a way of sidestepping that the courts said the state had a legal obligation to sufficiently fund education,” Phillips said.

Carlin said she had no issues with the court’s ruling. “They based it on what was written and voted on by the public and their representative government,” she said.

When she first joined the state legislature, Carlin said a Supreme Court judge from another state told the new legislators that you have write the laws exactly how you want them to read.

“Every word, every thou, every shall and every may are important when a judge makes a ruling,” she said. “That’s one of the first things I was taught.”

Hawk said the judicial branch should be able to prevent extremes from happening in the Legislature’s definition of ‘suitable’ education.

Hawk said he is troubled that Brownback is urging the legislature to allow him to make judge nominations rather than a committee, as it is currently done. “I really don’t want it to be a political process,” he said.

Hawk and Carlin said it would essentially be Brownback controlling all three branches of government.

There are a number of options that could take place should the Kansas Supreme Court uphold the lower court’s ruling.

Anderson pointed to two areas within the current education funding that make up the $440 million needed to raise the base state aid per pupil.

The recommended FY 2014 budget includes allocating $114 million in capital improvement aid and $328.2 million for the state retirement plan.

“Your $440 million is already being spent on schools,” Anderson said. “They have just chosen not to count that as a school payment.”

Should the state have to raise the money, Anderson said the options would be to cut into the retirement plan and suspend capital improvement aid, or hurt other programs.

Carlin said the administration is looking to move the money away from certain areas.

“It strips the schools of any dollars they might have on hand for repairs, fixtures, changes and growth,” she said about removing capital improvement aid. “They’re trying to get into all the pockets of money districts have had available to them.”

Phillips said cutting expenses in other programs and finding efficiencies within education can only do so much. “At some point, you’ll reach the realization that you have to look back and review the tax policy,” he said.

Hawk mentioned the Senate passing the “pay-go” rule on a 28-11 vote Wednesday as a reason for a lack of optimism about address the tax policy.

According to the “pay-go” rule, a lawmaker can’t propose a spending increase during final budget debates without also proposing a budget cut.

For example, if Hawk wanted to add $3 million to the education budget, he would have to find $3 million to cut elsewhere.

“That says to me there’s such a clear majority that the chance of making any changes to the tax rate is highly unlikely,” Hawk said.

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