Archive for Thursday, April 28, 2005

Funding surprise

District finds proposed school finance formula delivers $1 million hit

April 28, 2005

De Soto USD 232 Superintendent Sharon Zoellner said she was unpleasantly surprised when reading the details of the recently passed school finance legislation.

In an attempt to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court order to pump more state money into K-12 education, the Legislature passed a school finance measure this month that would provide an additional $127 million to the state's school districts for 2005-2006. Provisions in the bill would also allow those districts already taking advantage of the maximum allowable local option budget the authority to further raise local mill levies.

Although De Soto has long had an LOB at the state maximum (25 percent of general fund dollars it receives from the state) the added authority never had any appeal with Zoellner and the USD 232 Board of Education. The district's mill levy is currently the second highest in the state, and the district lacks the commercial and industrial tax base that raise great amounts of money from local property taxes.

The authority to increase local option budgets was popular in the wealthy Shawnee-Mission, Olathe and Blue Valley school districts. Aware the measure would probably be a part of any bill passed, the district sought and got assurances that De Soto would still be eligible for one perk associated with having a maximum local option budget.

But Zoellner said she learned last week that districts had to increase its LOB to the new maximum to remain eligible for new facilities weighting, which gives districts added per-pupil funding for those students in new classrooms.

New facilities weighting is obviously a boon for USD 232, which adds new classrooms -- and the newly hired teachers to fill them -- on a near yearly basis. The weighting added from $1.02 million to $1.52 million in additional state aid to the district in the past three years.

Its loss would more than offset the $900,000 the Kansas Department of Education estimated USD 232 would earn from the school finance bill.

Zoellner said learning of the possible hit only reinforced her critical opinion of the school finance bill.

"The bill is bad for all school districts in Kansas," she said. "It is very bad for the De Soto school district."

Zoellner said she was hopeful the measure would be removed from the legislation in the upcoming veto session.

Another option, she said, was that districts currently at the maximum would be grandfathered for the length of any existing bond issue. USD 232 still has an elementary school and middle school to build in the $76 million bond issue approved in November 2002.

Because the bill was passed less than three months before districts approve their 2005-2006 budgets, the Legislature allowed districts to increase LOBs to 27 percent of their general fund revenue for next year without being subject to a citizens' protest petitions. Should districts decide to keep that added authority for the 2006-2007 year or raise their LOBs to the 29 percent allowable for that year, the decision would be subject to a project petition.

The legislation's fate is now in the hands of the Kansas Supreme Court. The school districts that brought the suit that led to the Supreme Court's order found an ally Monday in the Kansas Board of Education in their fight to overturn the legislation in favor of more state aid.

Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline outlined his defense of the bill Monday, saying it closed the per-pupil spending gap among districts. The plaintiff and state must have briefs delivered to the Court the first week of May and a hearing was set for May 11, Zoellner said.

The Court might make a ruling that day, but that could take more time. Facing the task of preparing the district's budget based on the Court ruling, Zoellner hoped for a decision sooner than later.

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