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Kan. gov. to outline school funding plan's details

By John Hanna
Associated Press / December 12, 2011
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TOPEKA, Kan.—Gov. Sam Brownback's administration plans to release the long-awaited details of his plan for overhauling how Kansas finances its public schools this week amid skepticism about his ability to keep his promises to protect rural schools and prevent any local districts from losing state aid.

The details will become public Wednesday, when Landon Fulmer, the governor's policy director, makes a presentation to the State Board of Education, the governor's office said Monday. Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said each of the state's 283 districts will be able to see how the plan will affect its aid.

Fulmer already has discussed the outlines of the plan in briefings with educators and legislators, including a provision to remove state limits on local school boards' power to increase property taxes to supplement state aid. Fulmer has said Brownback wants to create a "flexible" funding formula, while the governor has said he wants the state to avoid future lawsuits.

It's not yet clear how much of the proposal has been modified in recent weeks as Fulmer's briefings have continued. For example, Fulmer told the state school board last month that the plan would allow counties to raise their sales taxes to support schools, but the idea has met with widespread criticism because most of the revenue would have to be shared across county lines.

"There has been a lot of work since he met with the school board last month," said Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag.

The state now distributes more than $3 billion a year in aid to school districts, but Brownback has questioned whether it is working adequately. That's partly because this year the state dedicated more dollars to teacher pensions and helping districts with building projects, even as it cut its base state aid per student by nearly 6 percent to help balance the state budget.

The state has been sued by 32 students, along with their parents and guardians, and the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Wichita school districts. They argue that state funding is inadequate and the money is distributed unfairly.

The Great Recession led the state to back away from big, court-mandated increases in aid. This year, the GOP-controlled Legislature, urged by Brownback to control spending, cut base state aid to schools by $232 per student, dropping it to $3,780.

The formula ties each district's budget to that per-pupil base aid figure. Districts can levy local property taxes to supplement state funds, though the amount is capped.

Officials in rural areas worry that changes in school funding will shift resources away from their communities and hasten the decline of small rural school districts with declining student populations. Last week, state Sen. Ruth Teichman, a Stafford Republican, publicly called on the GOP governor to dedicate savings from an early retirement program for state employees to education funding.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said educators are waiting to see Department of Education computer runs that detail how the plan will affect each school district.

"Until you see the details that allow you to make the runs, you don't know how all this is going to work," Tallman said. "The skepticism from many districts is: How does this play out over time?"

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Online:

Kansas governor: https://governor.ks.gov/

Kansas Association of School Boards: http://www.kasb.org/

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