School funding plan's effects on property taxes uncertain

School funding plan's effects on property taxes uncertain

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators acknowledged Friday that they're still not sure how Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's school-funding proposals would affect local districts' property taxes, and the governor has yet to provide details.

Brownback has called on the GOP-dominated Legislature to repeal the state's existing formula for distributing state aid to public schools. He has proposed giving districts state "block grants" totaling $3 billion a year based on their current basic aid while lawmakers write a new formula.

The current funding scheme allows each local district to levy property taxes to supplement state dollars, capping the amount at about $2,340 per student. Brownback hasn't spelled out whether or how districts' taxing powers would change if the formula is repealed, and spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said in an email that such issues "are yet to be determined."

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said it's not clear whether repealing the funding formula would eliminate districts' taxing powers altogether or give them unlimited taxing authority by removing only the state's cap. Several key Republican legislators said they assume Brownback wants to keep property tax levies at current levels while lawmakers write a new formula.

"I would assume — and this is just an assumption — that they would have to freeze everything," said Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Nickerson Republican. "That would be the cleanest version, but I don't know."

The uncertainty is unnerving for some lawmakers, who worry about both funding for schools and potential increases in property taxes.

"I think it's a big leap for any legislator to contemplate repealing the school finance formula we have now and replace it with a blank slate that will be filled in later," said Rep. Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican. "We don't know where we're going yet."

Brownback argues that the formula is antiquated, overly complicated and not geared to improving teaching or students' performance. Like other Brownback critics, Hensley said the two-decades-old formula has "stood the test of time" and that the state simply hasn't provided enough aid to schools for it to work well.

The formula distributes state aid per student, but it artificially inflates each district's enrollment to provide additional dollars for special programs, such as those designed to help at-risk kids.

Legislators initially gave districts the power to levy additional property taxes to allow them to pay for extra programs parents wanted. But local school boards quickly came to rely on the funds for basic operations, when increases in state funding didn't keep up with inflation or the per-pupil aid figure dropped amid state budget problems.

Lawmakers from Johnson County, home to Kansas City suburbs, have argued for no limit on local property taxes, saying parents shouldn't be prevented from making their schools as strong as possible if they're willing to accept higher levies. Johnson County is the state's most populous county and its legislators are a key Statehouse voting bloc.

Rep. Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican, said the property-tax cap must be eliminated, "especially if you want Johnson County to vote for the plan."

But other legislators want to retain property-tax limits. In poor areas, property-tax levies must be higher than in wealthy areas to raise the same dollars, and they fear poor schools would fall behind their wealthier cousins.

"That would be very dis-equalizing," Hensley said during a news conference Friday.



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