Top Democrats predict extension of Kansas school funding law

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Legislature's top Democrats predicted Sunday that Republican lawmakers will try to extend a new law for funding the state's public schools that has been criticized by many educators, though two GOP Senate leaders said they knew of no such plan.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, and House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs, of Kansas City, said they doubt the Legislature's GOP majorities will pass another school funding law this year to replace a short-term one enacted last year. Democratic lawmakers met for policy briefings a day before Monday's opening of the Legislature's annual session.

Republican leaders have acknowledged that they're not sure how far legislators will get in writing a new formula for distributing more than $4 billion a year in aid to the state's 286 school districts. The current law — which junked a per-pupil formula in favor of set "block grants" — is set to expire in July 2017 because the GOP lawmakers who wrote it meant it to be temporary.

Hensley and Burroughs said they think Republicans will attempt to extend the current law until July 2018, so that much of the work of drafting a new formula can be postponed until after this year's elections. All legislative seats will be on the ballot in November.

"At the end of the day, I think they'll just punt," Hensley told fellow Democrats.

Burroughs said during a break in Democrats' meeting: "I anticipate that they will extend the block-grant formula one more time."

But the Senate's top Republicans, President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, and Majority Leader Terry Bruce, of Nickerson, said they know of no plans to consider an extension.

Senate Republicans also had a two-hour caucus Sunday, hearing presentations from officials in GOP Gov. Sam Brownback's administration, including Shawn Sullivan, his budget director.

Before the GOP gathering, Wagle said it's premature to talk about what legislators will do on school finance issues because an education funding lawsuit from four local districts is still before the Kansas Supreme Court.

Bruce said of extending the block grant law, "If there's a plot to do it, I'm left out in the cold."

The per-pupil funding formula abandoned last year was enacted in 1992. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and many GOP legislators said it was too complicated and didn't direct enough state funds into classrooms. It also sometimes complicated efforts to control state spending by automatically calling for additional aid if a district gained students or more students had special needs.

Many local school officials liked that flexibility and dislike the block-grants law because it doesn't provide the same automatic adjustments. Some of them — including the four districts with the lawsuit before the Supreme Court — also contend that Kansas has fallen perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars short of adequately funding its schools, something Republicans dispute.

Both Democrats and the GOP senators heard presentations on budget issues. Democrats were briefed by former Budget Director Duane Goossen. He held the job 13 years under GOP and Democratic governors before Brownback took office in January 2011. Goossen has been a vocal critic of Brownback's fiscal policies.

Bruce's office initially described the Republican senators' gathering as a private orientation session, but it ultimately was open to reporters.

"It's good to see a group of people in this room who are remaining vigilant, who make Kansas stronger, safer, freer, more prosperous," Brandon Smith, the governor's policy director, told the GOP lawmakers. "You all have done a lot of amazing things."

Democrats opened their meeting by sharing personal stories about why they joined the party. Wagle ended the GOP meeting by warning her colleagues that a gastrointestinal virus is sweeping Kansas and that lawmakers should leave the Statehouse if they start to feel ill.

"Hug the toilet at home, not in the state bathrooms," she said.



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