(Second of three articles)
By early May in 1992 the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Kansas Legislature had begun to compromise on the remaining issues in a remarkable new school finance plan. A six-member House-Senate conference committee met 11 times during the final three 20-hour days of a grinding, 100-day legislative session.
Gov. Joan Finney or her chief of staff, Mary Holiday, attended every meeting, saving precious time in resolving any possible differences that might prevent her signing the bill. Nothing like this – the meetings, the governor’s participation, the legislation itself – had ever happened before.
They were creating what would become a national model in state funding for local schools – historic legislation, durable for decades.
The finance act of 1992 became the framework for local school budgets in Kansas. Had this law remained steady, with only adjustments to meet changes in local economies, in changing demographics, population shifts and district consolidations, it might have prevented or lessened rising inequities among schools in the state’s wealthy and poor regions, between sparsely populated rural districts and the more crowded urban centers and expanding suburbs.
In the beginning, the legislation advanced four fundamental principles:
– A statewide uniform property tax for schools;
– Local spending limits;
– Local wealth as a state resource to be shared among rich and poor communities;
– State funding of local schools based on district enrollment.
The new law also provoked vast transfers of political power. Battles over reform incubated new and loyal constituencies, cause lobbies and special interest groups, many of them unhappy.
Particular seats of anger, for example, started in the southwest and the northeast, home to the state’s two “Johnsons”
– Johnson City, in Stanton County, a southwest Kansas embodiment of vast natural resources (groundwater and natural gas) and agricultural production (irrigated crops and cattle feedlots); and Johnson County of the northeast metroplex, with its dynamic economies of suburbia: shopping malls, office parks and rolling stretches of housing subdivisions. School patrons, business leaders and citizens in both regions believed their separate resources had been looted, their independence and ingenuity plundered in order that the inefficient, the idle, or even the unfortunate, be propped up in the name of equity.
Thus With this new law, the tinkering began almost before the ink had dried.
It started during debate of the original bill. One pillar of reform was the uniform, statewide property tax for schools; it had been set at 35 mills ($35 per $1,000 assessed valuation) to generate revenues from each of the state’s 304 school districts (there are now 286) for a central funding pool: aid would be allocated statewide per pupil, according to district enrollment. The uniform tax at that rate had two important effects: first, it would dramatically lower property taxes in some of the state’s poorest regions – rural communities and blighted urban zones, for examples, where local levies were 85 to 100 mills. (Most average around 20 today.)
Second, the uniform levy was to stabilize property taxes in districts that often saw them fluctuate dramatically, often upward. Opposition came from legislators representing comparatively wealthy districts in southwest and northeast Kansas, where average incomes were high enough to keep property taxes at a far lower portion of district wealth. Those were the more populated areas as well; one compromise after the next brought the original statewide levy down, ultimately, to 20 mills.
More tinkering involved local option budget (LOB) funding. This allowed districts to boost budgets by increasing local taxes beyond the statewide uniform levy. In the beginning there were limits, based on a percentage of a district’s operating budget. A school board could vote to increase spending above the limit, but this would be subject to protest petition and public vote.
Among the first moves around this limit was to increase the percentage by which a district could increase its local budget without voter approval.
Another change involved “weighting,” in which districts increase enrollment numbers and qualify for more state aid, resolving social needs or paying added costs of students with special needs. Students who qualified for free or reduced price lunches, students in low-enrollment districts, or students who were bused – these and others added to an increased, or “weighted” enrollment, and a district’s weighted enrollment – rather than its actual body count – was used to calculate its state funding.
And trouble loomed: The rising costs of schools would collide with an increasingly skeptical and stingy, legislature.