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School-Finance Debate in Kan. Prompts Talk of Taxes

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A Kansas House panel last week began work on a package of state tax increases designed to offset cuts in local school revenues that would result from a school-finance measure espoused by Democratic lawmakers.

Seeking to avoid a potential court order to reduce spending disparities between rich and poor school districts, House Democrats late last month released a reform plan that would set statewide property-tax and basic per-pupil spending rates.

The plan would lead to an estimated $330-million reduction in local school funding. To enable the state to fill the gap with increased education aid, members of the House Taxation Committee were expected to consider adjustments to the state sales tax and other measures.

The rush to rework the finance formula began last October, when Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock--who is overseeing four finance lawsuits filed by 42 school districts--issued an opinion in which he hinted that the existing formula could be declared unconstitutional unless it was made more equitable.

Different interpretations of the judge's ruling, however, have led to a sharp debate among lawmakers over how dramatically to reform the existing finance system.

Most Democrats, including Gov. Joan Finney, contend that only radical changes will bring the finance system into compliance.

The House Democratic proposal would set a uniform property-tax levy of 45 mills and establish a base per-pupil budget figure for all of the state's 304 school districts.

The Democratic plan also balances elements of a school-finance measure crafted by Governor Finney with provisions designed to alleviate criticisms that the plan would penalize fast-growing and rural districts whose costs varied widely from the average.

The proposal, which has already been endorsed by the House Education Committee, would allow school districts to exceed the base spending target of $3,675 by as much as 25 percent.

Local Tax Option Favored

The majority of Republicans in the legislature, on the other hand, argue that relatively minor modifications in the current system would be acceptable.

House Republicans have introduced a finance-reform plan that they contend would not require additional state revenues.

The Republican proposal would maintain much of the existing formula, under which the state provides $500 million in general education aid to local districts through a weighted formula that gives more money to poor districts.

The G.O.P. plan calls for roughly $100 million in local property-tax relief, to be funded by allowing school districts to levy an income-tax surcharge. It would not require the state to provide districts with any additional assistance.

Republicans argue that the virtue of their plan is that it maintains the "local control'' highly valued by school districts.

That issue is a particularly volatile one in Kansas, where some districts have even threatened to secede from the state rather than accept control of local spending.

Ms. Finney's original proposal, which was drafted by a special panel of legislative leaders, educators, and other state officials, prompted protests from several school superintendents, who argued that their districts would be greatly harmed by a state cap on per-pupil spending.

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