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Debate Over School Finances Deteriorates in Kansas

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The school-finance problems that have preoccupied a number of state legislatures in the past two years descended on Kansas last week like a prairie tornado, leaving lawmakers a day before their session's end unsure how the matter would be resolved, and where--and on whom--the fallout would land.

Although they have been studying the education-finance situation since last October, when a state judge indicated that substantial changes were needed to balance the scales between wealthy and poor school districts, nothing prepared politicians in the state capital for last week's events. Many veteran lawmakers were left wondering whether they had met their match in the tangled finance-reform issue.

"It's an interesting study in how representative government works, or does not work at times, especially when you get into one of these bottlenecks,'' said Senator Jerry Karr, the leader of the Senate's Democratic minority. "We don't want to end up like Texas with endless special sessions, but it looks like we may be headed down that path.''

The lingering finance debate has already been widely cited as an obstacle to legislative consideration of the state budget and reapportionment.

It has also been the chief reason that residents of several low-tax counties in the southwestern corner of the state--which would see higher taxes and less state school aid under virtually any finance remedy--voted overwhelmingly last week to secede from Kansas and form a new state.

"I think they started out to try and be heard, but this has been going on for several weeks now,'' said Senator Fred Kerr, the Senate majority leader, of the rebel movement. "I don't know what they'll do next.''

Searching for Answers

Unpredictability has been the chief attribute of recent legislative developments as well.

After a decisive 82-to-43 vote in the Democrat-majority House for a plan with substantial reforms of the state school-finance and tax systems, the Senate opted for a rare Saturday session to consider a similar plan. Sponsors appeared to have a majority vote for their bill wrapped up.

Following seven hours of debate and amendments, though, the coalition fell apart on a 17-to-23 vote. After being rushed back to committee and brought before lawmakers again Wednesday night, a worse fate awaited the second bill, which was defeated 26 to 14.

Late last week, Senate leaders were working on yet another bill in committee and hoping for a quick and successful floor vote.

Still, any Senate-passed plan would face major problems in conference with the House and in gaining Gov. Joan Finney's approval. Given the disarray, observers last week could provide few insights or answers.

"If anybody tells you they've got a line on something, I'd like to visit with them,'' said Gerald W. Henderson, the executive director of the United School Administrators of Kansas.

The House bill, which has the support of low-wealth school districts and most education groups, would create a statewide property tax to provide equalized local school funding. It also seeks to reduce the local property-tax burden by increasing state sales and income-tax rates.

As shown by the two Senate votes, however, the House approach appears unacceptable to a clear majority of the upper chamber. Senator Kerr labeled the bill too radical and expensive and criticized education groups for pushing the plan.

"They have perceived this as a gravy train for them, and they have gone all out to get the bill passed with as much money and as little responsibility as possible,'' he said.

Mr. Kerr also joined other participants in the debate in faulting Governor Finney, a Democrat, for failing to exercise leadership.

Governor's Stance Faulted

"Like a lot of people, she wants to take credit and be a player, but she does not want to take the blame for any resulting tax increases,'' he said. "Our system is set up for the Governor to be an important player, but she has not been one.''

Ms. Finney took the initial step in the current debate by creating a task force that late last year proposed a comprehensive answer to the October court opinion. (See Education Week, Dec. 4, 1991.)

Since then, however, critics say Ms. Finney has been highly reactive and has played both sides of the fence.

While the Governor's staff worked with House leaders on the early versions of its bill, her aides say the plan has now gone too far.

"She won't veto the concept of the plan; she's stongly in favor of that,'' said Ladislado M. Hernandez, Ms. Finney's education aide. "What she's said is that she would veto any tax-rate increases because the people do not want that.''

In the meantime, Judge Terry Bullock, who wrote the initial pretrial opinion, set a June 1 court date and scheduled a one-week trial to review the legislature's handiwork.

Some observers last week expressed optimism that lawmakers ultimately will produce an improved funding formula.

"The legislature has treated the issue extremely seriously,'' said Senator Kerr. "Of course, progress is in the eye of the beholder.''

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