Archive for Thursday, July 14, 2005

Kobza happy with resolution to school finance impasse

July 14, 2005

After a 12-day special session that had legislators locking horns with the Kansas Supreme Court, the state will be sending Eudora Unified School District No. 491 a long-awaited funding increase.

"Basically I was pleased to see the Legislature and court come to an agreement, and the focus is back on the students," said Eudora Superintendent Marty Kobza.

The school finance plan, finalized Friday when the Supreme Court gave its blessing to the Legislature's effort, marks the first funding increase the district has seen since 2001.

For the coming 2005-2006 school year, the state will be sending the district an extra $399,000, but only $243,000 will be available in general funds, Kobza said.

The USD 491 Board of Education will decide how the money is to be spent in the coming weeks as it works on the 2005-2006 budget, Kobza said.

The preliminary district budget was drawn up without taking into account the extra money. This means the district might be able to keep some programs that were otherwise on the chopping block or look into improving teacher benefits or salaries.

"I think we need to improve our teacher compensation package for the teachers in Eudora," said Eudora National Education Association representative Bob Sailler. "Not only because we need to attract top candidates, but also to retain top-quality teachers."

Kobza is certain that the increase will put the district in a better overall financial position.

"The good part is that we'll be able to keep some programs and get ourselves on some good financial ground," Kobza said.

Some of the money could be used to pay the salaries of five new full-time staff positions and one new part-time position, which will cost the district $220,000.

"We were counting on new enrollment to cover those costs," Kobza said. "If that doesn't come then we could use the state money."

Although the repercussions of the ruling mostly help the district, the court decided to allow districts to increase the amount of local property tax they can levy through local option budgets. The caps on local option budgets can increase this year from 25 percent of general fund revenue received from the state to 27 percent of that amount.

This ruling would benefit a richer district, but might put smaller-sized districts like Eudora at a disadvantage, Kobza said.

"I still think there is inequality in this proposal," the superintendent said during an interview last Thursday.

The state issued a total increase of $148.4 million to cover the entire state in conjunction with $142 million approved earlier in the year. This increase totaling $290 million will put the state's education budget at roughly $3 billion.

The latest installment of money came as the last event in a contest of wills that pitted the Legislature against the Kansas Supreme Court. Before the school finance plan was approved July 7 and made official Friday, the Supreme Court was threatening to keep schools closed until the state came up with the money.

"I think the interesting part about this has been the blame shifting back and forth," Kobza said. "The Legislature blaming the Court, then the Court blaming the Legislature that they haven't been doing their part."

Officials even classified the issue as a constitutional crisis, Kobza said.

That battle still leaves some sore spots with local legislators.

State Sen. Roger Pine, R-Lawrence, was happy with the gist of the ruling.

"I believe we did what we were supposed to do in regards to an education bill that responded to what the courts told us we needed to do," Pine said. " I feel like we've tried to do a good response to them and at the same time hopefully one that is good for education."

Despite the progress on the funding, a clearer separation of power is needed within the state government, Pine said.

"I am disappointed that we weren't able to pass a constitutional amendment that would have clarified," he said. "I don't think it would have changed anything but it would have given the people a role in clarifying the responsibility of the courts and the responsibility of the Legislature."

State Rep. Anthony Brown shared Pine's sentiments and said the most positive aspect of Friday's decision is the fact schools will remain open.

The Eudora Republican, who voted against the latest increase, shared concerns on how the state was going to continue the education fund next year. The state could be asked to pay more than $560 million in additional funding.

"I'm a little concerned that $143 million this year is not as big a problem as $565 million next year," Brown said. "That's going to be a problem coming up with $565 million extra for next year's court request."

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