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Kansas Proposal To Ax Statewide Property Tax Worries School Officials

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School administrators in Kansas watched nervously last week as gridlock in the legislature threatened a 35-mill statewide property tax that provides most districts with a big part of their budgets.

The levy was approved four years ago as part of a reform of the state's school-finance law. But Republicans in the House now want to abolish the property tax and find other ways of financing public education.

Republican Gov. Bill Graves, meanwhile, asked lawmakers to extend the law for a year to allow time to explore other options.

Late last month, the Senate approved a one-year renewal of the levy, the finance formula's cornerstone, while legislators launched a study of school finance. But lawmakers in the House refused to approve any extension.

Late last week, neither side had budged very far on the issue.

If a compromise is not reached, the state will face a $332 million shortfall in school funding, which in some districts could represent a reduction of 30 percent or more in their operating budgets.

"That's what frightens everyone," Ron Wimmer, the schools superintendent in Olathe, Kan., told local reporters. "They're flirting with catastrophic consequences."

Mr. Graves already has said he might call a special session later this year to address the issue if it cannot be resolved before adjournment.

"But that's assuming that the legislature will adjourn without doing anything," said Mike Matson, the governor's spokesman. "The conventional thinking around here is that they'll stay until they get something done."

Huge Cuts Feared

But despite Mr. Matson's optimism, the tone of the debate appeared to be reflected in a comment made by a House Republican last week, shortly after the House voted 91-35 to reject the governor's plea to extend the tax for a year.

"It's time to tell the governor, 'What part of 'hell, no' don't you understand? '" said Rep. John Ballou.

The closing days of the legislative session and several days of legislative wrap-up have been devoted to trying to reconcile the opposing positions.

Rejecting the governor's call for a one-year extension, a majority of House Republicans continue to push for abolishing the school property tax, something Gov. Graves said the state can't afford right now. The GOP controls both chambers of the legislature.

At a press conference last week, the governor cautioned opponents "that we can't spend money we don't have and can't cut taxes with money we don't have."

Although the Senate is closer to the governor's position, lawmakers have been unable to devise a workable compromise.

If no solution is found, one state education official said, school spending next fall could drop by at least 15 percent, reducing per-pupil spending from $3,626 to about $3,026.

As a result, educators predicted that teachers could be laid off, prompting an increase in class sizes. Purchases of equipment could be delayed and programs cut, they added.

"It would be devastating to kids and their education programs," said Dale M. Dennis, the state's interim education commissioner.

Local Planning Thwarted

To demonstrate their concern over the possible outcome of the debate, the superintendents of six Kansas school districts held a news conference late last month to beg lawmakers to wait for a year before making any substantial changes in the finance formula.

The superintendents of the Olathe, Blue Valley, De Soto, Shawnee Mission, Spring Hill, and Gardner-Edgerton-Antioch districts joined for a press conference at Walnut Grove Elementary School in Olathe.

The threat to the statewide levy makes educators nervous because it has become a pillar of the state finance formula. In the Shawnee Mission district, officials pointed out, the levy brings in $60 million, or about 35 percent of the operating budget.

Speaking at the press conference last week, Mr. Wimmer, the Olathe superintendent, said the legislature's inaction was disrupting school operations all over the state. He noted that the deadline for faculty contract renewals passed on May 1 and that most districts are in the midst of salary negotiations and budget planning.

"We have broad-based support for our schools countywide," Mr. Wimmer said, "and we must not stand by quietly while those in Topeka jeopardize the quality of education our patrons expect and our students deserve."

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