Archive for Thursday, July 14, 2005

Additional school aid ‘good start’

Teachers’ compensation top priority in USD 232

July 14, 2005

De Soto USD 232 Superintendent Sharon Zoellner applauded Friday's Supreme Court ruling that increased funding to Kansas public schools by $290 million, but only as a first step.

At least one of De Soto's conservative lawmakers says it's a step that should not have been taken.

The Legislature last Wednesday approved a $148.4 million spending plan to end an unpopular 12-day special session. The plan added to a $142 million package lawmakers approved during their regular session.

The Court heard oral arguments Friday morning from attorneys involved in the case. Justices conferred and delivered their approval of the plan at 3 that afternoon, to the dismay of legislators who hold that justices overstepped their constitutional authority in ordering unaffordable increases.

Zoellner described the plan as a good start but noted it would not be a long-term fix for school districts.

"We will benefit from those increases," Zoellner said, "and we hope that we can reinstate some instructional dollars that we thought we were going to have to cut."

The Court's swift ruling will help De Soto and other districts move quickly into their budget planning processes, Zoellner said. She said her district was waiting on official paperwork from the state and planned to begin talking about how to use incoming funding this week.

Zoellner said improving teacher salaries was one of her first priorities for additional money.

The superintendent, however, said state money could have been better spent than using it for a special session of the Legislature and that she was sorry the budget situation came to that.

"I am excited that the Court chose to rule as quickly as they did on Friday," Zoellner said. "I am disappointed it took us a special session to get this accomplished."

According to preliminary calculations released by Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis, De Soto will gain $1.7 million in additional state funds, or $376 per pupil. The calculations are based on districts' 2004-2005 budgets and head counts.

The total includes the following sub-categories:

  • $166,000 for at-risk programs
  • $70,000 for bilingual education
  • $262,000 for special education

In another potential revenue increase, the Court approved a part of the school finance law that will allow districts to raise their local property taxes to 27 percent of their general budgets. Previously, the limit was 25 percent.

In June, the Court stopped the proposed local option, but it lifted that order Friday because under the new legislation, the state will input extra dollars to help low-wealth districts.

Zoellner said she couldn't say whether the De Soto district would take advantage of additional taxing authority. That decision will be made by the board of education, and members have not yet had time to discuss the matter, she said.

If the district increases it's local option budget, it could gain an additional $510,000, according to the state's calculations.

In June, the state Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to increase school funding because the Court said the system was unconstitutionally under-funded.

The order eventually led to an unprecedented standoff during a special legislative session with conservative lawmakers like Sen. Kay O'Connor, an Olathe Republican who represents De Soto, arguing that the Court did not have authority to order the Legislature to appropriate money.

O'Connor said lawmakers should have addressed the Court's "inappropriate" behavior before finalizing a school funding plan.

"We did not address the issue of the Court overstepping their boundaries," she said. "I felt that was the first issue that needed to be dealt with.

"Once we settle who gets to appropriate money and who doesn't, then we can talk about how much money is there and who gets it."

The total approved increase, $290 million, is the largest increase of state funds to schools since 1992. Spending on schools will be about $3 billion for the upcoming year.

The new package will be paid for by higher-than-expected tax receipts and by dipping into budget reserves. Most budget experts predict the state will face a serious deficit next year without a new source of revenue, like a tax increase or expanded gambling.

O'Connor said returning legislators would face a "mess" in January when they tried to find means to pay for the increase. O'Connor said she opposed tax increases and that gambling proposals she'd heard were unacceptable solutions, too.

"This is another reason I voted 'no' on this piece of legislation," O'Connor said. "I think it's completely irresponsible to spend this kind of money knowing full well that we don't have it. This is money we're short."

The Court ruled in June that the school finance plan the Legislature passed in the regular session was $143 million short of adequately funding education. A special session was then called under the threat the Court could halt funding to schools if an acceptable solution wasn't passed by July 1.

Zoellner sent a message to parents and patrons involved in the district's legislative liaison group notifying members of the possibility. However, Zoellner said contingency preparations did not go any further.

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