Governor pleased with Kansas school bill progress

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback talks during a news conference on Friday, March, 7, 2014, in Topeka, Kan. The Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state's current public school funding levels are unconstitutional, and the court said Kansas' poor school districts were harmed when the state made the decision to cut certain payments when tax revenues declined during the Great Recession. (AP Photo/The Topeka Capital Journal, Chris Neal)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican Gov. Sam Brownback said Tuesday he was optimistic that legislators were getting closer to a school funding solution to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court ruling, though he would like to see more of the new spending directed toward classrooms.

A plan emerged Monday night that would increase spending by $129 million in two areas identified as unconstitutional by the court. The spending would be in addition to the more than $3 billion the state currently spends on K-12 education.

Brownback said Tuesday that legislators were searching for the money to pay for the increases, and his earlier proposal to spend $16 million to boost the state’s share of all-day kindergarten costs is likely to be dropped.

“Everybody’s hunting for money,” the governor said. “You’ve just got to find the money for equalization.”

The court set a July deadline for legislators to make the changes to correct flaws in funding aimed at equalizing funding between poor districts with low property valuation compared to wealthier districts, such as those in Johnson County and western districts with large oil and gas reserves.

The case, which was filed in 2010 by attorneys representing school districts and parents, was also sent back to a three-judge district court panel to determine if total education spending — more than $5 billion from state, local and federal sources — was adequate.

One additional source of money could come from a proposed change in how districts are reimbursed for transportation costs. A Kansas Department of Education analysis of the package estimates that it would save the state about $15 million in aid distributed to all districts — costs the districts would then have to make up from other sources, unless local transportation policies are revised.

The House budget committee was delaying a briefing on the bill until Wednesday at the earliest, when staff will outline the components of the package.

“It’s getting closer. It just takes a bunch of iterations,” Brownback said.

Brownback and House Speaker Ray Merrick, both of whom have been negotiating a school plan with Senate GOP leaders, hope that something will clear the House before legislators take a three-week break starting April 4. Legislators are scheduled to return in late April to finish all unresolved issues of the 2014 session.

“Hopefully we get it done by next Friday,” said Merrick, a Stilwell Republican.

The governor put $16 million for all-day kindergarten in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, but recognizes that it may be a casualty in light of the court ruling. Currently, fewer than two dozen of the 286 school districts offer all-day kindergarten, but the state pays only half the cost. The remainder is covered with other district funds or by charging parents a monthly tuition.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis said if Kansas restored cuts made since 2008 that districts could have enough resources to pay for all-day kindergarten without having to resort to charging parents fees or using other funds.

The Lawrence Democrat, who is seeking his party’s nomination for governor, questioned why the GOP was intent on making policy changes in their plan instead of just appropriating the $129 million to satisfy the ruling. Davis and Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, have introduced bills that would do just that.

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