Bill keeps schools open

By Sam Jack

On, June 27, Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill to keep schools open after the court’s July 1 deadline to create an equitable funding system. The bill then was determined by the Kansas Supreme Court to be constitutional.

The special session concluded well before the deadline, but it was not lacking in contention.

On Thursday, June 23, the first day of the session, House majority leader Ron Ryckman advanced a plan that would have provided the needed $38 million in state equalization aid for property-poor districts.

But the plan was controversial, because $13 million came from an across-the-board 0.5 percent cut to districts’ operating budgets. When Wichita school officials said they would approve of the plan as a “last resort,” Rep. Jim Ward responded by posting to Twitter.

“Next time (you) hear anyone from 259 talk about failure of (the Kansas Legislature) to fund schools, know when it was their turn to fight for funding they caved,” he wrote.

Local districts would have received hundreds of thousands of dollars less under Ryckman’s plan. The plan would also have substantially decreased the number of dollars available in an “extraordinary need” fund for districts with property valuation declines or big enrollment increases. Goddard received money from the fund last year.

With some questioning whether a plan that reduced schools’ overall spending power could satisfy the Supreme Court, it became clear by Friday morning that Ryckman’s proposal did not have the needed votes for passage.

Then Rep. Melissa Rooker (R-Fairway) and other moderate Republicans advanced the plan that ended up passing nearly unanimously in both the House and Senate. 

Instead of taking $13 million from schools’ operating budgets, Rooker and other drafters hoped to get that money from sale of the Kansas Bioscience Authority.

Lawmakers had already agreed to sell the 12-year-old biotech investment authority, hoping to get $25 million to plug budget holes. 

The first $25 million from the sale of the authority is still be placed in the state’s general fund, with the next $13 million going to schools. If the sale fails to garner $38 million, the Extraordinary Need fund will be raided to make up the difference.

According to the Kansas Legislative Research Department, all four Times-Sentinel districts come out ahead under the new funding formula, compared to what they would have received under block grants. Combined, the districts received $474,677 in additional local option budget aid, which will allow them to reduce property taxes; and they received $727,427 more in capital outlay funding, which is used on facilities maintenance and improvements.

Amendment fails to advance

A proposal to amend the Kansas Constitution failed in the Kansas Senate Friday. The tally was 26-13, one vote short of the required two-thirds majority to send it to the House.

The amendment would have limited the Kansas Supreme Court’s authority to enforce its school funding equity and adequacy rulings by forbidding the court to halt funding or order schools closed.

Local Sen. Dan Kerschen (R-Garden Plain) voted no on the amendment, though he offered qualified support for the intent behind it.

“It wasn’t a bad amendment, just the wrong timing,” he said. 

Kerschen said he was concerned about talk that Senate approval of a school funding fix could be conditioned on House approval of the proposed amendment, so he felt it was more prudent to take the amendment issue off the table.

“I talked to some House members, and they said, ‘If the Senate didn’t pass the amendment, maybe they’ll vote for our plan.’ ... It proves, if you can get the right plan, people can support it,” said Kerschen.