Kansas Democrats offer school finance plan

Kansas Democratic legislators on Tuesday unveiled a plan that restores cuts made to schools, provides property tax relief and stands in stark contrast to a proposal by Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, to overhaul the finance formula.

“Cuts to schools have gone way too far in the last few years,” said House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence. “But the problem has not been the formula. It has been the lack of funding,” Davis said.

Under the Democrats’ three-year plan, the Lawrence school district would see an increase of $3.7 million in state funding. That would include increases of $933,839 in the next school year, $933,839 the year after that, and $1.868 million in the third year.

Democrats said the goal is to restore funding that has been cut during the recession and get base state aid up to $4,492 per student. Cuts in base state aid over the past several years have dropped that level to $3,780 per student, which is the lowest mark in a decade and has led to teacher layoffs and larger class sizes.

The plan would pump an additional $45 million in the 2012-13 school year, $45 million more in 2013-14, and $90 million more in 2014-15. In addition the plan would also allocate $45 million to local governments to reduce property taxes. Under the proposal, Douglas County would receive $1.7 million.

The additional school funding and tax relief dollars would come from the current $350 million that the state has received above earlier projections and expected future gains in revenues, Democrats said during a news conference before students and teachers at Lowman Hill Elementary.

Spending the surplus or cutting taxes

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley framed the debate, saying that Brownback wants to give “our surplus revenue to corporations” through tax cuts while Democrats want “to make an investment in our children’s future.”

Brownback has said he wants to reduce the state personal income tax as a way to spur economic growth. He is expected to release details of that proposal during his State of the State speech on Wednesday. Of 1.4 million individual state income taxpayers in 2009, nearly 200,000 or 13 percent were business taxpayers, according to the Kansas Department of Revenue.

On school funding, Brownback has proposed a complete revamping of the finance formula that would place more responsibility on local taxpayers and local boards of education.

He proposes leaving in place for one more school year the current level of base state aid of $3,780 per pupil.

Once the new plan is put into place, Brownback said it will cost an additional $45 million in base state aid, which is approximately 2 percent more than than the amount spent now. But many mid-size and large districts wouldn’t see any increase.

According to a spreadsheet of funding for school districts provided by the governor’s office, the Lawrence school district would see no change in its total funding between the current formula and the one proposed by Brownback.

Brownback’s plan would eliminate state limits on local property taxes for schools and junk a system of “weightings” that are used to provide school districts additional funds for transportation costs, bilingual education, students who are at risk of failing and other factors that increase the cost of education. Brownback has said his plan would provide the funding but give local districts more leeway in how to spend the dollars.

Democrats have argued there is no reason to overhaul the formula and that Brownback’s plan will widen the gap between rich and poor districts, leading to more local property tax increases and litigation.

By Scott Rothschild

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