- Associated Press - Saturday, August 15, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - At least 13 percent of Kansas’ 286 school districts are expected to ask top state officials for more money to address their budget problems, renewing a debate over whether a new funding law is harming public education.

Already, the state Department of Education has received applications for extra aid from 22 districts that have seen lower local tax revenues, largely due to a drop in oil prices. Another 15 to 20 districts seeing a rise in student populations will likely apply by Monday’s deadline for extra aid, including Wichita, the state’s largest district.

Under the new school funding law - enacted by Republican lawmakers with Gov. Sam Brownback’s support - the governor and the Legislature’s eight top leaders determine whether each district gets extra funds, due to happen at an Aug. 24 meeting.

The extra funds are limited by law to $12.3 million. The 22,000-student Kansas City, Kansas, district has asked for $2.7 million alone, so it can hire more teachers to deal with an expected influx of 500 kids.

“These school districts are now at the mercy of nine politicians,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, one of two Democrats who’ll participate in the decisions. “It’s proven to be far worse than the previous formula.”

The new law gives districts stable funding grants for the next two years and replaced a per-student formula for distributing more than $3.4 billion a year in state aid.

Brownback and some GOP legislators argued that the old formula was too complicated and didn’t get enough dollars into classrooms. It also sometimes forced unanticipated increases in state aid, adding to the pronounced budget stresses after GOP lawmakers slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging in an effort to stimulate the economy.

Republicans who helped write the new law said they anticipated some districts would see enrollment increases or other face other problems, so they set aside the extra dollars.

One of them, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said the number of requests is “about what I expected.”

But Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson said the volume may reflect a push by educators - many of whom don’t believe the new law adequately funds schools - to show that lawmakers were wrong to enact it.

“The money is there for a truly extraordinary need,” the Andover Republican said. He and Ryckman are among the lawmakers reviewing the requests.

The issue of whether schools are receiving the money they need is now before the state Supreme Court in the form of a lawsuit from four districts, including Kansas City.

According to critics, the requests for extra aid highlight a big flaw in the new funding law: It doesn’t automatically increase a district’s aid when student population grows.

“The old formula was more flexible in responding to conditions in the districts,” said Gail Dunbar, superintendent in the Plainville district in northwest Kansas, which is seeking $466,000 in extra funds. The new law, she said, has “taken away our flexibility.”

The Kansas City district gained more than 500 students. Without extra aid, the Kansas City district will have to hunt for savings in order to hire new teachers while avoiding an increase in local property taxes, spokesman David Smith said.

In southwest Kansas, the 320-student Satanta school district would likely need to increase property tax levies, tapping homeowners and businesses who’ve already suffered economically because of the decline of the oil industry, said Superintendent Jeff Bollinger. The value of property associated with oil production dropped dramatically this year, by nearly $486,000 - leading the district to seek help.

Plainville has a similar problem. The 22 districts, including it and Satanta, that saw property values drop with oil prices are mostly in western Kansas and are seeking nearly $6.5 million in extra state aid.


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

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