Archive for Thursday, March 24, 2005

State lawmakers chasing solution for school funds

March 24, 2005

The faster April 12 approaches, the more dubious De Soto school proponents become that Kansas legislators will pass a school finance plan.

"I don't see them making a lot of progress," said Board of Education member and legislative liaison Sandy Thierer. "And it's almost April."

After deeming the state's school funding amount unconstitutional, the Kansas Supreme Court gave legislators until April 12 to devise a plan that would adequately fund a suitable education.

In February, the Senate wrote and passed a plan, and the House wrote and passed a plan. But Thierer and others say politics are blocking the entities from working together and that the plans aren't sufficient anyway.

"Neither one of them, we think, is going to meet the muster of what the Supreme Court has in mind," said Superintendent Sharon Zoellner.

Thierer, who described the predicament as "depressing," said legislators seemed to agree that something must be done, yet none were willing to make a big move.

Neither of the plans include enough dollars for a long-term solution, she said.

"All of the budget information indicates there'll be no money to carry forward for this," Thierer said. "And in four years we'll be back in the hole."

Thierer and district operations director Jack Deyoe gleaned some of their glum outlook from a Kansas Association of School Boards government relations seminar they attended last month in Topeka.

Thierer said she and Deyoe touched base with De Soto's and other legislators and found they agreed more than usual with Sen. Kay O'Connor, R-Olathe, a voucher proponent and private school teacher who has often clashed with district officials.

"Out of all the people we talked to that day, she was making the most sense," Thierer said. "She actually had a thought-out plan."

Even though O'Connor is not on any of the Legislature's education committees, she has given the situation considerable thought.

O'Connor said she thought the state should work from the definition of an "essential" education, not a "suitable" one. The term "suitable" is subjective, she said, using the example that while a swimming pool would indeed be suitable for a school, it may not be essential.

The state should poll districts to determine how much it costs to provide an essential education, then fund it 100 percent, she said.

"The definition of essential education would, of course, have to include everything required by No Child Left Behind legislation," O'Connor said. "Anything that's outside of that essential curriculum, that's what the Legislature should be debating."

O'Connor said she believed there was more to education than just books.

But she said essential -- not suitable -- should define those needs, too. While art education is essential, there are ways to provide that without purchasing a state-of-the-art kiln when money is tight, she said.

"Music, art and sports are essential; there's no question about their essentialness," O'Connor said. "The question is, 'How much is enough?'"

O'Connor said she also supported lifting the 25 percent ceiling on local funds, but only with a district's taxpayer vote.

Thierer said she thought a "big schools versus small schools" attitude was hampering legislators' ability to agree on a plan. They all said they wanted a fix that's best for everyone, she said, yet legislators couldn't seem to get past their own districts' narrow interests.

Thierer said some representatives seemed less-than-knowledgeable about areas far from their own homes, which put De Soto's interests at a disadvantage.

"They equate Johnson County and Shawnee Mission," Thierer said. "They don't know there's three small school districts in Johnson County."

The House school finance plan is Bill No. 2474; the Senate's is Bill No. 246. Read and track bills on the Kansas Legislature Web site, accessible through www.accesskansas.org.

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