Part II: Addressing confusion around school finance
Last week, we focused on the key words “suitable provision” within our Kansas Constitution. Our Supreme Court interprets these two words to mean “equitable and adequate.” Since the Gannon lawsuit was filed in 2010, the day Sam Brownback was elected as governor, the measurement for determining “equitable and adequate” has changed with each of the last five Supreme Court rulings.
So, who filed the Gannon lawsuit against Kansas taxpayers? Four school districts filed the original Gannon Court case in 2010 (note, not the original school funding lawsuit): Dodge City, Wichita, Hutchinson, and Kansas City of Wyandotte County. However, 80 of the state’s 286 total school districts have contributed money to Schools for Fair Funding — the entity that has paid millions of school district dollars to the lawyers that sue us, the taxpayers.
If funding is inadequate, are local school boards maximizing their local funding options? School boards are authorized (directly prior and after the end of the Block Grant that expired fiscal year 2017) taxing authority for what is called the local option budget (LOB) up to 33 percent of a formula-based number that allows for the “Supplemental General State Aid.”
School districts have a maximum level of local taxes they can raise through increasing property taxes (mill levy). That maximum level is not being utilized by many districts, which means they are taxing their patrons less than what they could. Simply put, the School Districts mentioned previously choose to sue all Kansas taxpayers in order to increase its funding instead of simply requiring the taxpayers in its district to pay more to educate their own children. Many school districts are charging lower local taxes while suing to get more funds from taxpayers outside their district and around the state — i.e. your income and sales taxes are being diverted to pay for their lower property taxes.
The four schools that were part of the original lawsuit are not currently using their maximum taxing authority. If these four districts needed more funds for teacher raises or classroom enhancements, the money is already available today. Without any more lawsuit wins or increased state funding, these four schools would need only to increase their local property tax rates to the statutory maximum levels and be subject to a 30-day protest petition. These districts are suing you instead. In essence, by not maximizing their local funding authority, their actions indicate they would prefer everyone else in Kansas pay more for their schools rather than ask their local voters/patrons.
Here’s the current fiscal year breakdown of the available LOB the four districts currently suing you have available: Dodge City, USD No. 443 — $1,714,253 unused taxing authority; Hutchinson, USD No. 308 — $1,036,782 unused taxing authority; Kansas City, USD No. 500 — $5,183,549 unused taxing authority; Wichita, USD No. 259 — $11,422,696 unused taxing authority. And, they can make these increases without a lawsuit.
The total amount of unused LOB funds available to all the Kansas School Districts in 2017-18 is $82,201,110. Many districts, though representing themselves as underfunded, are not utilizing their maximum taxing authority to increase their own funding. They need to start filling their budget holes by taxing their own citizens. If they don’t need the money, then don’t raise taxes. If it is needed, then the school boards need to first look at LOB options that currently exist before using your tax dollars to pay attorney fees to be part of the on-going lawsuit which essentially sues every Kansas taxpayer.
The bottom line: we should all ask questions. It’s important to verify the facts that are provided to us from your local, state and federal officials, elected and unelected. Trust, but verify. Ask hard, detailed questions. Make your school officials explain the budget and spending issues until you understand them. Don’t let anyone hide behind jargon and accounting phrases. Remember it is your money and they, school or state, are your employees. Insist on simplicity and clarity.
And while asking questions, consider these: if funding is not adequate in our school district, where is the money going? What are our teachers getting paid? What are our administrators getting paid and what have their raises been the last five years? Is the expensive technology we’re buying being used well and are our children benefiting from these large and important investments? What are all the options for raising more funds? Would increasing the local mill levy to statutory maximum levels provide the new funding necessary to make a difference? How much additional money does your local school district need and for what purpose?
Questions are good. Asking the right questions — even better. The school funding issues are not easy ones. So, let’s keep the discussion open. Let’s check our facts and keep asking more questions. Let’s not be satisfied with less than a clear, full picture.
I want great, well-funded schools — after all, my children graduated from and my grandchildren attend these schools. Their teachers and administrators are my friends and neighbors. I respect what they do and I want them treated well and fairly. I encourage all of you to reach out to your School Boards and ask questions. Attend meetings. Read the budget reports. Together, we make a difference. Together, we find solutions. Together, we build better communities, schools, and work places.
Until next time, may the blessings of God be yours.
Randy Garber6 Posts
Randy Garber is the Kansas House 62nd District Representative. His first term was 2011. He currently is vice chair for the Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, and also sits on the following committees: Social Services Budget, Agriculture and Natural Resources Budget, Energy and Environment, and Telecommunications Study.