- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Poorer school districts stand to gain the most from a recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found the state’s school funding system unconstitutional, a top education official told Democratic legislators on Tuesday.

School districts with the lowest property valuations per student stand to gain the most financially from a recent state Supreme Court ruling, a top Kansas education finance officials told Democratic legislators Tuesday.

Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner with the Department of Education, said districts with the lowest property valuations per student already have increased their local property taxes to the legal limit. That means any new amounts the Legislature spends could be used in those areas to lower property taxes but likely wouldn’t increase school funding.

“Property tax is especially sensitive in some areas of the state,” Dennis said the Democrats, who asked to meet with him.

The education department estimates lawmakers need to spend $129 million to fully comply with Friday’s ruling, which found portions of the state’s school funding formula were unconstitutional. Kansas spends more than $3 billion in state revenues on public schools.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis told fellow Democrats it could be months before the courts ultimately determine if legislators respond appropriately to the ruling or that millions more need to be spent.

“We will keep this conversation going to get an understanding of what the ramifications are,” said Davis, a Lawrence attorney seeking his party’s nomination for governor.

The department said poorer districts receive a higher percentage of state aid to offset the lack of property valuation. However, large districts like Wichita, Topeka and Olathe also qualify for significant aid amounts.

Statewide, the median amount school districts can raise in property taxes is $64.86. Galena in southeast Kansas is on the poor end of the extreme, raising $18.82 per student. Other districts with higher property values and mineral wealth can raise much more per student, such as Satanta in Haskell County in southwest Kansas, at $511.55 per student.

The two funds flagged by the Supreme Court in its ruling seek to put the Galenas of the state on similar revenue footing as the Satantas through additional state support.

Galena’s superintendent, Brian Smith, said the ruling “was a major victory.”

“We were very excited here because we were punished more than any other district because of our low valuation,” Smith said. “We’re not just a poor district property-wise, but we have a lot of poor people, too.”

Galena is located in far southeast Kansas along the Missouri border, which is an area that has been economically depressed since lead, zinc and coal mining operations ceased operating decades ago.

Through the 2008-09 school year the state equalized the aid 100 percent to the tune of $323 million. The equalization rates declined for local option budgets for operating expenses to 78 percent in the current year, though total spending increased to $339 million.

Dennis said the result was poor districts had to increase property taxes to offset the decline in state aid, meaning districts would be under pressure from local residents to roll back rates if more money is allocated from Topeka.

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