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School-Finance Pact in Kansas Puts the Brakes on Lawsuit

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Ending several months of arduous debate, Gov. Joan Finney and the Kansas legislature have reached final agreement on a plan making major changes in the state's school-funding system.

Not only does the legislation represent a hard-won consensus among Kansas political leaders, it also has earned a strong judicial endorsement, thus heading off a continuing court battle over school finance.

Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock, whose comments last fall indicating that the existing system was unfair and ripe for a constitutional challenge touched off the current debate, last week praised the legislature's work and called off a scheduled June 1 trial date for a pending finance lawsuit.

"Let me say, then, to all those who have worked so hard to avert a crisis and to find a solution for Kansas and its children, we are deeply grateful,'' Judge Bullock said in a statement from the bench. "I have never been prouder to be a Kansan.''

Uniform Taxes, Spending

The bill, which Ms. Finney was expected to sign late last week, establishes uniform statewide levels for property taxes and per-pupil spending.

The legislation essentially calls on the state to take over the role of local school districts as collectors and dispensers of taxes in support of education.

The $389-million school-finance package, approved earlier this month by a conference committee, sets a minimum level of state aid per pupil of $3,600, which is $25 per pupil less than a version approved by the House.

The final bill also includes several local options that allow districts to exceed spending limits if they raise sufficient local revenue to do so.

The bill sets a statewide tax rate of 32 mills for the 1992 fiscal year, with provisions for raising the minimum to 35 mills by fiscal 1994.

The conference committee struck a balance between a House proposal to set the minimum at 29 mills and a Senate version of the bill that would have established the minimum at 35 mills.

A version of the measure, worked out by a conference committee, was overwhelmingly approved by both legislative chambers and passed on to Governor Finney for her signature.

One last obstacle to the bill came when some objected to a provision to make the measure retroactive. That would cost the state roughly $5 million, which critics said would be better spent to benefit students directly.

But proponents of the retroactivity provision eventually prevailed with the argument that it would enable districts to undertake much-needed renovations and maintenance.

Reform Provisions Included

State officials said they were pleased that the finance measure also contained provisions to ensure accountability from local districts.

"It's a pretty comprehensive bill,'' said Dale Dennis, the state education department's assistant commissioner for finance.

As part of the package, districts will be required to test students to assure that they meet minimum state qualifications in mathematics, science, communications, and social studies.

The measure also adds 6 days to the school year over two years, requiring a minimum school calendar of 186 days by 1994.

Interest among districts in the specifics of the final version of the reform measure was running high last week.

"We're running a call every three minutes [from local districts],'' Mr. Dennis said.

The measure continues to face strong opposition, however, from residents of the southwestern portion of the state.

That region, which enjoys ample property wealth because of mineral resources, stands to be hit by substantially higher taxes and lower school spending as a result of the bill.

Resentment of the measure's fiscal impact--and concern that its efforts to equalize school spending will undermine educational quality--has fostered a mostly symbolic campaign to secede from the rest of the state.

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