Archive for Thursday, March 9, 2006

District unlikely to receive windfall

March 9, 2006

Though it's too early to tell exactly how much money Lansing school district will receive next year from the Kansas Legislature, it appears that the district is neither poor enough nor large enough to merit a windfall.

A plan introduced late last month in the House of Representatives would increase funding $500 million over three years. Last week, a plan was introduced in the Senate to increase funding $660 million over three years. Both plans rely on existing state revenues and would not increase taxes.

The plans were created in response to a decision last year by the Kansas Supreme Court that public schools were unconstitutionally underfunded. In a special session last summer, legislators increased spending on schools by $290 million, more than 10 percent, but the court decided to keep the school funding case open.

Lansing school district could receive an additional $358,333 to $381,207 in state aid next year, according to plans proposed by the House and Senate, respectively. This year, the district received about $11.8 million in state aid.

But, local legislators and schools superintendent Randal Bagby said this week it was too early to know what would become of the plans and the money by the end of the legislative session. Both plans have met resistance over the definition of at-risk students and the budget shortfalls that would result in the second and third years of each plan.

"I'm not getting too excited yet," Bagby said.

The plans both increase aid for districts with high poverty rates, including Kansas City, Kan., Topeka and Wichita. Both plans would provide more than $1 million in additional aid to the Leavenworth school district, which has about twice as many students as Lansing.

One problem with both plans, Bagby said, is that the state bases funding for at-risk students upon the number of students in a district that qualify to receive free lunches. However, districts divvy up the money among all of the students it considers at-risk, regardless of whether they receive free lunches.

The result, Bagby said, is "that school districts like Lansing are getting cheated." Lansing and other medium-sized districts will be punished for not having a high number of at-risk students, he said.

"Most of the money is going toward districts with high percentages of at-risk students," Bagby said. "This is not a surprise and philosophically we might even agree, but this funding increase is at the expense of schools like ours."

Rep. Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing, agreed with Bagby. Because of Lansing's low percentage of at-risk students, it's at the low end of receiving new money.

"We have needs, too," he said.

Rep. Candy Ruff, D-Leavenworth, whose district includes parts of Lansing east of Main Street, said she was in favor of the House plan. "Wealthy districts are not getting a lot out of this plan," she said. "Frankly, they are doing just fine."

Lansing doesn't have a lot of poor students, Ruff said. The district won't receive as much money under the House plan as some other districts, she said, but Lansing also doesn't have problems with meeting Adequate Yearly Progress so it's not in great need.

"We've got to put the money where we hope we'll see the results," Ruff said.

Balancing act

The school finance plans have yet to be debated by either chamber, but both are already under fire for what some say is irresponsible spending.

Neither plan suggests raising state taxes. In the first year, they rely on higher than expected revenues. But critics say the plans have no source of funding for the second and third years of the three-year plans, which will put the state into the red in those years.

Wilk said the plans might not be realistic.

"I've got a lot of questions at this point," he said. "It doesn't work financially."

Sen. Mark Gilstrap, D-Kansas City, said one possible revenue stream is from expanding gambling, a plan he supported. Wilk said he had supported similar gaming measures in the past. However, the plan to expand gambling met resistance earlier this week when it was unveiled in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee.

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