School funding — wait and see

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March 17, 2014 - 12:00 AM

How the Legislature ultimately deals with the Supreme Court decision to adequately fund public education may boil down to more an urban-rural debate than one between Republicans and Democrats in the statehouse.
That was the take of two legislators, one of each political stripe, at Moran Saturday morning.
Adam Lusker, a Frontenac Democrat whose 2nd District includes a slice of eastern Allen County, and Kent Thompson, rural LaHarpe Republican whose 9th District takes in most of the county, had a conversation with a handful of constituents.
Thompson and Lusker both said it would be difficult at this juncture to predict what the courts might order to better equalize spending on education. Other, that is, than restoring state aid for local option budgets and capital outlay funds.
Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, and Speaker of the House, has instructed his colleagues to find a way to fund those two components by April 5.
The district court, where the Supreme Court case originated, will determine overall funding for education. Thompson and Lusker said that decision wouldn’t likely be available until after the session, perhaps even later in the year.
Lusker noted how important fully funding the local option budget (LOB) was for rural districts. With current funding, he said the LOB in Marmaton Valley (Moran-Elsmore) came up short by $71,000; USD 257 (Iola-Gas-LaHarpe) $438,000.
Meanwhile, Thompson noted the significance of state aid for local, and other rural districts. In USD 257, for example, about 10 percent of its general fund comes from local property state revenue. The remainder from the statewide 20-mill levy in wealthier districts, such as those in Johnson County.
He theorized urban districts would be delighted to direct local property tax revenue to schools, because their tax bases are huge. To put that in perspective, the valuation of the Shawnee Mission district in Johnson County is $2.9 billion. USD 257’s valuation is about $52 million, Marmaton Valley’s $16 million. A step further, a levy of 1 mill raises $52,000 in USD 257, in Marmaton Valley $16,000. In Blue Valley it’s $2.9 million.
With that in mind, the two legislators predicted debate in the Legislature over increased funding for education would have an urban vs. rural flavor.

MENTION of Senate Bill 411, which would bring a change to the way combined Extension districts are funded, surfaced. Allen, Neosho and Bourbon counties make up the Southwind District.
“I figured that would come up,” Thompson said.
Thompson added that the “firestorm it has created” likely means the bill, introduced by Sen. Caryn Tyson, whose district includes Allen, won’t come from this session.
However, Thompson said he understood Tyson’s concerns — he was an Allen County commissioner when discussions began that led to Allen and Neosho counties combining their Extension districts in 2010. Bourbon County joined in a year later.
At first blush, Thompson said he wasn’t overly fond of the idea, because it gave an independent board, albeit now elected, the ability to raise property tax rates with no oversight.
Having said that, he added that consolidation had worked well for the three counties and his fears of taxing problems have proved unfounded.
“It’s worked well,” he said, even though Allen County, as a single district, had few problems previously because county commissioners always were supportive.
“That may not have been the case elsewhere,” he said, careful not to be specific.
Lusker said he wasn’t concerned about Extension district boards — first appointed and now elected on two-year cycles — misstepping with property tax levies and revenue. “They’re your neighbors,” he noted.

MORAN RESIDENT Larry Manes asked about school and city election dates being moved to coincide with partisan county, state and national elections in the fall. The rationale mentioned is to save money on the process and increase voter participation.
“It would be difficult on schools,” Lusker observed, pointing out that their budgets are constructed in the spring and must be finalized by mid-August, a timetable that would not fit well with leadership changes in the fall.
Thompson said he had received no supportive comments from his constituents, and was reasonably certain the legislation wouldn’t fly. The League of Kansas Municipalities, as well as several local governing bodies in Allen County, have publicly opposed the change.
A component of the legislation, which Lusker said may have been pulled, was to make local elections partisan, which would then have had appointments by political caucus whenever a mid-term vacancy occurred.
That would put a burden on him politically, Manes said, with him being one of the few elected Libertarians in the state.

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