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Parties spar on school funding

Democrats, trying to hold on to the governor’s mansion, are going after Republican gubernatorial candidate Senator Sam Brownback on the issue of school funding.

“We fear that the introduction of the Brownback/House Republican Leadership Plan is merely the opening salvo of conservative Republicans to turn back the clock on school finance,” stated Rep. Paul Davis, Rep. Jim Ward, Senator Anthony Hensley and Senator Janis Lee in a letter to Kansas educators. “Conservatives seem determined to return Kansas to a system that shoulders property taxpayers with a disproportionate responsibility for school finance. We’ve been down this road before, and it is truly the road to ruin.”

Davis, Ward, Hensley and Lee represent the State House and Senate Democratic Leadership, who followed up that letter with a conference call Friday morning.

“The Republicans think the state should turn to local funding, as it was until 1992 (when a court case) led to the current formula,” said Davis. “I don’t think the formula is perfect, but the courts say it’s constitutional.”

Hensley followed up on that statement with his own experience in the legislature.

“I was in the house in 1992 when we revamped the formula. It was necessary,” Hensley said. “The legislature made significant investments in 1992 to lower property taxes. The more we can do at the state level, the less reliance school boards will have on property taxes.”

The current funding formula takes into account the number of students and the incoming level of the district. Taxpayers can shoulder up to 30 mill through the local option budget, which can be increased through a public vote. This year’s economic woes have highlighted the faults in the current funding system, which left many districts with major budget shortfalls. McPherson, for example, was forced to cut $650,000 from its 2009-2010 budget.

Hensley added that if school funding was placed entirely on property taxes, there would be more disparity that would lead to more litigation.

“If the Republicans have their way of it, we’re going to pass the buck to the local taxpayer,” Davis said. “It’s not about the formula. It’s about the funding.”

Brownback, however, strenuously denies that he’s in favor of shifting the burden to property taxes, saying Democrats are misrepresenting his position.

“That is completely outlandish. I wish they would spend as much time trying to solve the problem as they are trying to confuse the issue,” Brownback said. “That is not what I want to do. They would rather the funding be decided by the courts. That hasn’t worked. This is a funding formula that is broken and needs to be fixed by the legislature.”

Brownback said funding needs to be determined by suitability, equalization, putting more money into the classroom and what Brownback calls breaking the silos in the system down that lead toward constructing new schools rather than funding teachers. His “Roadmap for Excel in Education” includes focusing dollars on instruction, more transparent spending reports from districts and opening districts to more programs that will provide outside funding.

“I don’t want to go back to a completely property tax funded state. I don’t want to see property taxes go up. I am opposed to taxes going up,” Brownback said. My opponent, Tom Holland, has voted for property tax increases, He’s the only one in the race that’s voted to increase property taxes, despite what the Democratic leadership is saying.”

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