It’s not much of an endorsement when administrators of some of the school districts that would fare comparatively well under Gov. Sam Brownback’s school finance reform plan are wary about what lies ahead.
Not only are they understandably concerned about the shift in funding responsibility from the state to their local taxpayers, but the injection of state revenue they would receive under the new system won’t compensate for revenue cuts they’ve endured in recent years.
A story in Wednesday’s Mercury focusing on four school districts near Manhattan — Wamego USD 320, Rock Creek USD 323, Riley County USD 378 and Blue Valley USD 384 —illustrates the dilemma well. All would gain revenue from the governor’s proposal, but all would still have less than they did just three years ago. Wamego, for instance, would get an injection of about $552,000; that’s welcome, certainly, but it doesn’t come close to offsetting cuts in the last three years of $1.5 million.
Similarly, as Riley County School District Supt. Brad Starnes pointed out, although local funding increased by $300,000 from 2008 to 2011, state funding cuts meant the actual amount of money the district could spend dropped by more than $500 per student.
What worries superintendents — and taxpayers — more is the provision in the governor’s plan to remove the cap on local option budgets. That will help some districts in, among other places, Johnson County, where a slight increase in property taxes generates large, even vast, sums of money. But it will create a considerable burden in districts where it takes a large property tax increase to generate enough money to take up the slack left by inadequate state funding.
Inequities are inevitable. In Wamego School District, a one-mill property tax increase would generate $70,000 for schools, while in the Kaw Valley School District, whose headquarters is just 13 miles away, one-mill would generate $230,000. As Wamego’s Supt. Denise O’Dea observed, “Your zip code shouldn’t determine the value of your education.”
Nor should schools’ locations affect the burden on local taxpayers. But under the governor’s proposal, which supporters spin as a transfer of local authority rather than tax burden, taxpayers in far too many districts will notice the burden much more than they do the authority.