The ability of Kansas schools to provide quality education should not depend on their location or size, local school officials say.

The ability of Kansas schools to provide quality education should not depend on their location or size, local school officials say.

Under Gov. Sam Brownback's proposed Excellence in Education Act, the school funding program he has introduced that would be enacted in 2013-14, a heavier burden would be placed on certain districts to fund their students' educations. That would be a significant change from the state's current system, which collects 20 mills from each district and redistributes money to districts based on need.

That plan was enacted in 1992, and required that the state distribute $4,492 in base aid per student to districts. Because of budget cuts over the last several years, the state currently distributes $3,780 per student, plus additional money for students such as non-English speakers, those on the federal free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs, and students with developmental disabilities. Those criteria are known as "weighting factors,” and allow those students to be counted as more than one student because they cost more to educate.

"They know these things cost more money, and that's why the factors were put in place," said Tony White, the district's liaison to the Kansas National Education Association.

Under the governor's plan in its current form, those factors would be eliminated and students, regardless of their status, would count as only one student. Schools would not receive less money than their budgets this year. With the weighting factors included, Pittsburg USD 250, for example, is able to claim 4,502.6 students for funding purposes. With the factors removed, the district would only be able to claim 2,809 students despite the increased cost. Under the current system, the district's general fund has about $19.7 million. The new system, which would increase base aid but eliminate weighting factors, would provide the district with about $12.6 million.

"It looks like like more money because they're increasing base state aid to what it should have been," White said. "It gives a little more on one hand and takes away a lot on the other."

Luckily, officials said, there is a "hold harmless" provision that says districts cannot receive funding totaling less than they receive in the current school year. However, the program locks that number in place regardless of rising costs, and there is no way to get more aid unless more students enroll.

The plan is being sold as a way to equalize payments to districts and give them more control at the local level, but White said the current funding system was put in place precisely to make sure that smaller districts aren't left in the dust. The proposal, White continued, is much more sinister; districts would have more power to raise mill levies — a mill is $1 of property tax levied per $1,000 of assessed valuation — but the effectiveness drops sharply outside of big cities with high property valuations.

"It says you’ll never get more money than this for anything," White said. "It all would have to be done by mill levy. Now, a mill in Galena raises $10,000. In Shawnee Mission, it raises millions. Blue Valley just passed $70 million in a mail ballot, no problem."

In fact, Southeast USD 247 tried last year to pass a ballot issue that would raise the local option budget by two mills, or about $54,000, to offset cuts. Districts receive equal payments from the state for mill levies, but that, too, would go away.

Essentially, White said, the plan is sneaky. It returns base state aid per pupil to the levels mandated in 1992. It gives smaller districts more money from base aid, but their ability to raise money locally to make up for three years of cuts is limited. Districts with more than 2,550 students receive no additional funding, either.
Legislators are still debating the details of the plan, but White encouraged concerned parents to contact their local legislators.

"We have one of the best school systems in the country. We're in the top 10 in scores," White said. "But if you mess with funding enough the quality will suffer, no doubt about it. But it's got a lot of moving parts right now."

The following are the major provisions of the plan as provided by the Kansas State Department of Education:

• School districts would receive $4,492 for each regularly enrolled student (Kindergarten at 1.0 and virtual students at .75).

• The plan includes a hold harmless provision equal to the general state aid, supplemental general state aid (LOB), general fund local effort, and supplemental general fund (LOB) local effort.

• Hold harmless amount will change yearly subject to your enrollment increasing/decreasing.

• The plan includes a 20-mill statewide levy based upon the general fund valuation that is distributed on an equalization formula as defined in Column 8 of the Column Explanation.

• The increase under this plan is limited to 6 percent assuming that the local mill rate remains the same as the 2012-13 school year.

• The local effort must equal the LOB property tax rate in the prior school year to receive 100 percent of hold harmless.

• A school board may increase their local property tax in order to raise their budget above the formula amount, subject to protest petition.

• The following weightings have been eliminated:  enrollment, bilingual education, vocational education, K-12 at-risk, high-density at-risk, non-proficient students, new facilities, transportation, ancillary facilities, declining enrollment, and cost of living.

• The special education state aid distribution will not change.

• A new plan for vocational education is included as part of the plan.

• The bond and interest state aid for future bond issues will be discontinued after July 1, 2012.

• The combining of general fund budgets for consolidated school districts will remain in effect.

• Transportation is excluded from this plan and will continue as a separate formula.