Kansas Senate GOP unveils schools plan

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas school districts could impose additional property taxes with local voters’ approval to supplement their state funding under a plan outlined Wednesday by Republican leaders in the state Senate.

The new plan also would boost aid to poor schools in an effort to comply with a recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling in an education funding lawsuit. But the proposal from SenateGOP leaders also would reduce aid for busing costs, online classes and programs for students at risk of dropping out.

Poor districts would see their aid increase $134 million a year, for both general operations and capital improvement projects. Those additional costs would be offset by about $56 million in reductions in other aid, for a net gain in state aid to schools of about $78 million. The state already spends about $3 billion of its tax dollars a year on schools.

But the key wrinkle introduced by top GOP senators involves school districts’ ability to supplement spending levels set by the state. The law allows districts to increase their spending up to 31 percent, and the Senate Republican leaders’ plan would increase the “local option budget” figure to 33 percent to provide up to $85 million more for schools.

Much of that new money would come from additional local property taxes, and the spending would have to be authorized by each district’s voters in a mail-ballot election. But Senate Republican leaders said it offers local school districts a chance to boost classroom spending.

“All options are up for debate,” Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said after the caucus.

Boosting local spending authority could have some appeal for legislators from Kansas City suburbs in Johnson County. It is the state’s most populous county, and the Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley districts there - with nearly 50,000 students between them - would receive little help with an increase in aid to poor districts. Also, area lawmakers have argued for more local authority in the past.

“They put a lot of thought into this,” said Sen. Kay Wolf, a Prairie Village Republican, adding that her initial impression of the plan is favorable.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said he was reviewing the proposal in detail. House GOP leaders also were studying the new plan. They released their own proposal last week, boosting aid to poor districts but tying it to policy changes missing from the Senate plan, such as changing teacher accreditation rules and setting up a commission to hunt for efficiencies in school district operations.

The Supreme Court ruled March 7 that past, recession-driven cuts in aid to poor districts created unfair and unconstitutional gaps in funding between them and wealthier districts. The high court told lawmakers to fix the problems by July 1.

The state Department of Education estimates that simply reversing the past cuts would boost aid to poor districts by $129 million a year. Democratic leaders want to take that step, using the state’s cash reserves to cover the costs.

But some Republicans fear poor districts would use most of the new money to replace property tax dollars and lower their levies, resulting in no net gain in classroom spending. The increase in spending authority is designed to address that issue - and the SenateGOP leaders’ plan contains an extra $5 million in aid to poor districts to help keep their property taxes in check if they go for extra spending authority.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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