- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Top Republican legislators in Kansas said they’re looking to boost aid to public schools while providing them with financial stability and flexibility under a plan they outlined Thursday for overhauling education funding.

But the plan appeared to be far less generous to public schools than portrayed by GOP leaders when rising state contributions to teacher pensions were factored out. Data obtained from the Legislature’s research staff showed that pension payments accounted for three-quarters of the spending increase over the next two school years.

Republican leaders didn’t say how they’d pay for additional aid for schools, as the state faces a projected budget deficit approaching $600 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Closing the shortfall is the GOP-dominated Legislature’s biggest task this year, and aid to schools is the largest single item in the state budget.

“I think it’s positive that we have the Republican leadership saying they think they can identify more resources for schools, but - yeah - how’s that going to happen?” said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

One of the plan’s architects, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, acknowledged that rising pension contributions accounted for much of the increase but added, “The money that we spend for the retirement of the teacher is a classroom expense.”

The GOP plan would replace the state’s existing per-student formula for distributing its aid to 286 school districts, which is designed to ensure that poor districts don’t fall behind wealthy ones. The measure incorporates Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to give districts “block grants” instead - based on their current aid - until lawmakers can write a new formula during the next two years.

The plan would prevent unanticipated and automatic increases in spending that have occurred under the current school funding formula.

The state’s current budget problems arose after lawmakers aggressively cut personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging to stimulate the economy. GOP leaders want to preserve the tax cuts as much as possible in closing the shortfall, but boosting aid to schools would make both tasks more difficult.

“We’re in the middle of the process,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican and another architect of the plan. “This is obviously one half of the balance sheet.”

Legislative researchers’ figures showed that total state aid for public schools would rise under the GOP plan to more than $4.2 billion for the 2016-17 school year. It would be $333 million, or nearly 9 percent, more than the aid provided in the 2013-14 school year.

Brownback and other conservative Republicans argue that the complex formula is hard to understand and diverts too much money to buildings and equipment. Educators contend the real problem is that the state isn’t providing enough aid.

Figures from legislative researchers showed that more than half of the total spending increase touted by GOP leaders - $176 million - would occur in the current school year. The governor and other GOP conservatives acquiesced last year to a big increase in aid to poor school districts when the Kansas Supreme Court ordered it to do so in response to a lawsuit filed in 2010 by parents and districts.

Also, rising state contributions to teacher pensions account for all but $39 million of the projected $157 million increase in aid phased in during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. Outside of pensions, the boost in aid would be 1.1 percent over those two years.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, derided the proposal as “accounting gimmicks and fake money.”

Still, the plan would be more generous to public schools than Brownback’s budget recommendations and keep funding rising. Spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said the governor would work with lawmakers “to fix a flawed education funding formula.”

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Online:

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

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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