Kan. Legislators Tangle Over Local-Option School Budgets

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With their legislative session drawing to a close, Kansas lawmakers are under the gun to decide whether the state should have sole responsibility for school finance, or if individual districts should retain the ability to determine a portion of their own funding.

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At issue in Topeka--for the second consecutive year--are so-called local-option budgets authorized in the state's 1992 School Finance Act. The budgets allow the state's 304 school districts to supplement their state-authorized per-pupil allotment by up to 25 percent of the base amount--if local taxpayers consent to an increase in property taxes.

Only half of the state's districts have been able to pass such measures. Nevertheless, this school year, local-option funding accounted for some $239 million of $2.2 billion in total school spending.

Republican Gov. Bill Graves signed a combined tax-relief and school finance bill earlier this month that will provide about $130 million in tax breaks, including a drop in statewide property taxes for public schools, as well as $41 million in additional funding for public schools, raising state spending per student by $22, from $3,648 to $3,670.

Although local education officials say they are happy to receive the funding boost, the increase is not nearly substantial enough to wean schools of their dependence on local-option budgets.

Such budgets initially were intended to allow schools to raise money for special programs and amenities, but districts have turned to them to compensate for insufficient state funding for basic programs, said Jim Hayes, the director of research for the Kansas Association of School Boards in Topeka.

"The problem with local-option budgets is that they're not optional. They've become an intrinsic part of [a school district's] basic operating budget," he said. What schools need, he and others say, is higher per-pupil investment at the state level.

Protecting the Future

Local-option budgets are subject to a districtwide public vote every four years. The legislature extended the budgets an additional year last year, and both the House and Senate have proposed doing so again this year. The bills are in a conference committee.

Gov. Graves has said that he wants a bill that keeps local-option budgeting in place.

"It's critically important that we protect a certain amount of funding for public education that's been derived through local-option budgets," Mr. Graves said at a news conference this month.

If the legislature does not extend the budgets and they are put up for a public vote, 130 school districts with local-option budgets set to expire could face up to a 25 percent drop in funding. Observers, however, say such a scenario is unlikely.

'Back to Where We Were'

Although the 1992 finance formula was intended to address funding and tax inequities across Kansas, critics say that local-option budgets have allowed for the very disparities the formula was supposed to erase.

"We're heading right back to where we were before the law was enacted," said Cyndi Menzel, the communications director for the Kansas NEA, the state's largest teachers' union. "The state has not addressed funding the base at a realistic level."

Even lawmakers concede that the proposals to extend local-option budgeting for districts are a temporary solution for the equity problem.

"I hate the school finance formula and voted against the bill in 1992," said Rep. Michael R. O'Neal, who chairs the House education committee. The legislative proposals on the table are "a Band-Aid," the GOP lawmaker said.

"We've got to work out a way to fix the [school finance formula]," he said, "or before long we'll be back in court."

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