- Associated Press - Monday, November 9, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and top Kansas lawmakers Monday approved a total of $4.2 million in emergency aid for 25 school districts to help them with young refugees, increased student numbers or local economic problems.

Brownback and eight leaders of the GOP-dominated Legislature gave the districts about 66 percent of the $6.5 million worth of “extraordinary needs” funds they sought. The Wichita district sought $980,000 to hire new teachers and aides to set up special classrooms for dozens of refugee children from Africa and Asia and received $367,000 because of uncertainty about refugee numbers.

A school funding law enacted earlier this year gives the governor and legislative leaders the power to distribute up to $12.3 million in emergency aid in the current school year. Brownback and the lawmakers convened three days after the Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments from attorneys on whether the new law complies with the state constitution - and whether the state immediately owes its 286 school districts an additional $54 million.

The new funding law junked an old, per-student formula for distributing aid to school districts that Brownback and other GOP critics said was confusing and didn’t put enough money into classrooms. The new law gives districts stable “block grants” but many educators don’t think the funding is sufficient, and there’s bipartisan criticism of requiring districts to ask top state officials for extra dollars.

“It’s sad that we have to do this, isn’t it?” said Republican Rep. John Doll, of Garden City, who watched Monday’s meeting. “They have to come up here and plead.”

The state spends more than $4 billion a year on aid to school districts. Critics of the new law note that the old formula automatically adjusted districts’ funding when more students enrolled or when more students were poor or had other specific needs.

But Brownback noted after the meeting that the old formula also didn’t immediately help districts if their property values dropped suddenly. That’s a significant issue this year, when low oil prices have led to a drop in property values across western Kansas. Most of the districts seeking emergency aid Monday saw such a decline, crimping their ability to raise property tax revenues.

“I would think there would be a number of school districts that would be quite happy with the new system,” Brownback said after the meeting.

Brownback and top lawmakers distributed nearly $3 million to 16 districts to address their declining property values - even though the governor’s budget director, Shawn Sullivan, had recommended no extra dollars.

Top Republican legislators said they were being consistent with decisions made in August, when Brownback and top lawmakers distributed $5.1 million in aid, most of it in response to districts’ declining property values.

But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said if the most recent requests had been rejected, “They would have gotten a lot of political heat, especially from rural, western Kansas Republicans.”

“It was a political decision, which is basically what’s wrong with this process,” Hensley said.

As for Wichita’s request, district officials said an additional 92 refugee students have enrolled since September 2014, and an additional 140 to 150 are expected. But the state Department for Children and Families said there’s no way to know with any certainty.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said he supported the extra funding reluctantly.

“When groups bring people or send people, the money ought to come with them,” Merrick said later. “You dump people on us and expect us to pick up the tab.”

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

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