Archive for Thursday, April 7, 2005

Finance plan must meet court approval

Eudora superintendent says plan needs some adjustment

April 7, 2005

A funding plan recently approved by the Kansas Legislature would add more than $125 million in new money to schools across the state if the plan meets the approval of the state Supreme Court.

Eudora USD Superintendent Marty Kobza said there were some promising compromises made in the school finance bill, passed 76-48 in the Kansas House of Representatives last week, but certain aspects of the plan had him alarmed.

"It's obviously more than we have received in the past few years," Kobza said. "But when you look at the operational costs, it still brings us nowhere close to the increase in the Consumer Price Index over the past few years."

In January the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state Legislature was unconstitutionally under-funding public schools. The court demanded that lawmakers craft a better plan, based on the costs of adequate education rather than on politics. The new plan was to be presented to the court by April 12.

By eliminating several weighting factors in the current plan and putting that money to the base state aid per pupil, the base would increase from $3,863 per student per year to $4,107. This does not add money to the system, it instead will shift money from one category to another.

In the new funding plan the Legislature added $115 million of new money to the base, raising it to $4,222 per pupil.

At-risk weighting was raised from 10 percent to 14.5 percent while bilingual education weighting was increased from 20 percent to 39.5 percent. Raising the weighting multipliers brought the total to $125.2 million in new money.

If the plan is approved by the Kansas Supreme Court, Eudora USD 491 could expect to see an overall increase of $267,500 per year based on current enrollment, or an increase of $217 per pupil. That total would include $187,025 added to the base, $38,842 added for at-risk students who take free and reduced-price lunch and $41,633 to special education.

Kobza said it was encouraging to see that under the new plan the district would be receiving more money than before, but he was still concerned with some of the details of the funding plan.

A big concern among critics is that the plan would widen the gap between wealthy and poor school districts by allowing districts to increase their local option budget to 30 percent of their general operating budget. The current cap is 25 percent.

While this would not increase taxes on a state level, it would allow districts to raise an additional $500 million across the state through local property tax increases.

Kobza said the formula was unfair to poorer districts that would have to raise their taxes by a much higher percentage than the more wealthy districts. He said the impact of raising the LOB would be significantly more to taxpayers in a smaller district like Eudora.

"It still does not take care of the situation," he said.

The Legislature's funding plan would also allow 17 school districts in areas with high costs of living to raise their local budgets another 5 percent for teachers' salaries.

Eudora is not included in the list, but the neighboring districts of Lawrence, De Soto and Shawnee Mission are among the 17 districts that would be allowed to raise taxes for better teacher salaries.

Kobza said that aspect of the new funding plan was a political act, used to satisfy larger, wealthier districts. He said he was concerned about what it might mean for Eudora schools.

"We have great teachers who are in the profession for the right reasons," Kobza said. "But we cannot be naive enough to think that if a good teacher has the opportunity to make $10,000 more within a 20-mile radius, that they will not take advantage of it."

But even though the option might be there for 17 districts to raise local taxes for better teacher salaries, some administrators don't see it as a feasible idea.

De Soto USD 232 Superintendent Sharon Zoellner said the bill wasn't an acceptable solution for De Soto schools because it did not include sufficient state aid.

Even though law would allow it, she said the district was not in a position to take advantage of raising taxes locally to fill a void of state funds.

The Kansas Department of Education calculated that if the district took advantage of its local funding allowance for teacher salaries, De Soto could raise an additional $1.2 million per year.

But Zoellner said that would not happen.

"We live in a high-cost area, but we are not a wealthy district," she said. "We cannot afford to raise our tax levy like that."

Although Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius was dissatisfied with the Legislature's final draft, she said that in an effort to get it to the court before the April 12 deadline she would not veto the bill.

"Despite some patchwork progress that provides more money for schools, I still see no long-term plan, especially in funding public education for years to come," she said after the House approved the plan.

Sebelius said she would likely deliver the plan to the court without her signature.

Once the court receives the new finance plan it could take several weeks before the Legislature is given results of the review.

-- Scott Rothschild (srothschild@ljworld.com) and Sara Stites (sstites@newsmwc.com) contributed to this story.

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