The formula isn’t the problem

By Walt Braun

Hold harmless isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, at least not as the phrase pertains to Gov. Sam Brownback’s promise to Kansas school districts.

Among the highlights of the governor’s proposed school funding formula is the assertion that no district would lose money. It would have been more accurate to say that school districts wouldn’t lose any more money.

The Kansas Legislature has cut vast sums from school funding in recent years, affecting districts statewide. The Manhattan-Ogden School District, for example, has had to cut spending by $2.5 million in the past few years, even while adding students. This year alone, the school board cut more than $600,000 and is tapping cash reserves for another $650,000 to make ends meet.USD 383 is not expected to either gain or lose additional money when the new formula takes effect.

That other districts in our area apparently will benefit from the new formula doesn’t so much mean they gain money as it means they will be getting back some of the funding they’ve lost in recent years.

The state will fund schools differently, to be sure, but the $4,492 per pupil that the state promises isn’t as impressive as it sounds. That’s because unlike per-pupil amounts under the existing formula, which were supplemented with funds for specific purposes, those supplements will be incorporated into the $4,492.

Among key differences in the two formulas is that the funding burden will shift toward local districts. To that end, the new formula will do away with the cap on local option budgets. LOBs, as they’re known, are local property taxes that initially were intended to supplement state funding but that have become vital sources of money for districts statewide. The present cap without specific voter approval is 30 percent of a district’s general fund. Manhattan’s LOB is at 25 percent; it generates about $10 million a year.

The state would continue to contribute funding via the present 20-mill statewide school levy, though it would be distributed differently. Beyond guaranteed sums, however, extra state funding for specific schools would depend in large part on local patrons’ willingness to pay higher property taxes.

None of which is to say that the new formula can’t work; it can — if it is properly funded.

The present formula worked well when it was adequately funded. Had lawmakers merely approved annual increases that matched the rate of inflation since 1993, per-pupil funding would exceed $5,500.

Unfortunately, the Legislature’s unwillingness to adequately and equitably fund the existing formula resulted in a unanimous Kansas Supreme Court ruling that lawmakers had violated the Kansas Constitution.

Gov. Brownback has made clear his intention to keep school funding in the hands of the Legislature and out of the courts. Unfortunately, he would do so by placing more of the responsibility in the hands of local voters.

That’s philosophically defensible, but it’s also something that advocates of the new formula ought to regard as more than incidental .

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