By John Celock
Following a contentious debate on one of the most contentious issues in the state, Kansas lawmakers have passed a school finance in a bid to address a court order that could lead to the closure of the state’s schools.
The state House and Senate both passed legislation Thursday that would change parts of the state’s education financing formula that would deliver more funds to school districts. The legislation stems from a February ruling from the state Supreme Court that the state’s block grant school funding plan – adopted last year – does not deliver equitable funding for the schools. The court said that if lawmakers did not adopt a fix before July 1, the state’s public schools would close down. The legislation will head to Gov. Sam Brownback (R) for his signature or veto.”
“We are committed to one single goal, to satisfy the Supreme Court directive so public education is not disrupted by litigation,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. (R-Olathe) said during the debate.
The votes came after debates in both chambers that grew testy at times. During the House debate Thursday afternoon, House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs (D-Kansas City) screamed at Rep. John Whitmer (R-Wichita) over Whitmer’s speech that Democrats did not offer a school finance plan. House and Senate Democrats largely spent the debates in both chambers questioning the plans and criticizing the process used.
“You sir are an ideologist, a politician,” Burroughs said to Whitmer in a raised voice that drew immediate reaction from the chamber, with a chorus of “whoa” being heard. House rules do not allow for legislators to attack, or single out, other lawmakers during debate.
House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) and Majority Leader Jene Vickery (R-Louisburg), according to an observer, started to get the attention of Speaker Pro Tempore Peggy Mast (R-Emporia), who was presiding at the time, to gavel down Burroughs. Mast, who was in a sidebar conversation with a staffer when Burroughs made his comments, then reminded Burroughs that his comments were out of order. Several lawmakers had also banged on their desks in an attempt to get Mast’s attention as Burroughs began his attack on Whitmer.
Burroughs calmed his tone after Mast’s reprimand but told the House that he would not be bullied.
“I will not stand aside, I will not deal with bullies,” he said.
Democrats in both chambers used floor speeches to criticize the process used to assemble the final bill, saying that the bill draft was only released earlier this week and the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Ways and Means Committee held hearings this week with the final bill reaching lawmakers Thursday. On Monday, the Legislative Budget Committee, a joint body, held a hearing on the school funding issue.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson (R-Andover) told the Senate that the committee meetings were culmination of a longer process. He said that thousands of hours were put into discussing and assembling a plan with much of the work happening behind the scenes.
Masterson said the Legislature was a “consensus body” and the final bill was an attempt to achieve consensus.
The House voted 93-31 and the Senate 32-5 to approve the bill.
Democrats questioned the presence of a court reporter at the joint budget committee hearing and the meetings of the House and Senate budget writing panels to create detailed transcripts. Ryckman said the court reporter was trying to create a complete record of the legislative intent, which was a recommendation of an attorney that lawmakers retained earlier this year. He noted that the Legislature wanted to give the Supreme Court a full detail of legislative intent for future court hearings.
Ryckman also said the detailed preamble on the bill that explained the intent of the Legislature was part of the plan to create a record for the court.
“In an abundance of caution of explaining how we do things as a legislative body to be heard by the court,” Ryckman said. “We included a preamble to make that process clear so our legislative intent can be more concise.”
The Senate defeated a move by Sen. Marci Francisco (D-Lawrence) to remove the preamble.
Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita), a frequent critic of the GOP, took to the floor to criticize that the bill was coming to the House with no opportunity for amendments on the House floor. Both of the budget writing panels placed almost identical bills in previously passed bills from the other chamber – a process known as “gut and go” – which would allow for the opposite chamber to either approve or reject the bill without amendments. The Senate bill – which was tucked into a previously passed House bill about rental property inspections – allowed for the Senate to propose amendments and not the House. Ward has been a frequent critic of this process. The rental property inspection part of the bill was removed.
Ward said he does not see the plan as providing equality.
“They are playing Russian roulette with our schools,” Ward said.
Ward also said that he did not see the transcripts prepared by the court reporter as being the same as court transcripts. He said that lawmakers did not have the chance to offer cross-examination of both sides of the debate in committee.
Democrats in both chambers said that the plan would cause local school districts to raise property taxes, which Republicans said would not happen.
Several House members also complained about the process, saying they wanted a longer process with a chance for all 125 House members, along with all school districts and other education groups to weigh in. Rep. Melissa Rooker (R-Fairway), a moderate Republican often at odds with conservative Republicans on school funding issues, said she would vote for the bill in order to prevent a school closure. At the same time, she said that she wanted a more “holistic approach” to school finance and found this to be a stopgap piece of legislation to address the court.
“I continue to champion a conversation among key stakeholders to solve the school funding issue,” Rooker said.
Several legislators questioned the equity issue, saying that it is hard to deliver complete equity since schools offer different programs from district to district and have different budgets and programs. Under school finance plans and court rulings dating back to the early 1990s, the state is required to provide most of the funding for schools and districts which can include local property taxes. Much of the debate has centered on property rich districts vs. property poor districts, with many of the property rich districts being more rural with property poor districts including some of the wealthier suburban communities. In addition, questions have been raised over some districts wanting more state aid to lower property taxes.
Rep. Mark Rhoades (R-Newton), a former Appropriations Committee chairman, noted that lawmakers are trying to fund a “suitable education” that works for all students across the state. Rhoades called out school leaders in Wichita, who have said the city’s school system is in line for massive cuts under various state financing options. Among the cuts that been suggested by Wichita school leaders are cutting back on school nurses, librarians and one teacher position in each of the city’s schools.
Rhoades called out Wichita for having a large reserve account that is left unspent.
“I am really sad for Wichita schools, who have $100 million in their reserve account, 20 percent of their budget,” Rhoades said.
House Insurance and Financial Institutions Committee Chairman Scott Schwab (R-Olathe) suggested that local school districts can address equity issues through health care costs for employees. Schwab noted that during hearings his committee did this year about insurance pools for teachers, he heard of districts that have $100 a month co-pays for teachers and employees, while Wichita does not have a co-pay for teachers. He said that Wichita could address some of the local questions by offering a co-pay.
Schwab also said that equity comes down to money since the programs are not adopted in each district. He said that when the Blue Valley School District in Johnson County, one of the top districts in the state, put a bioscience program in place, the only way the state could address equity was to give more money to other districts since the other districts were not creating similar programs. He said total equity between districts was “intellectually impossible.”
Ryckman stressed that the bill passed Thursday was an attempt to make sure no district was losing funds. He was pointing to a proposal from the Supreme Court to return to the school funding formula in place before block grants were created last year, which he said would have cost money to many districts around the state.
“The bill in front of you makes sure no one loses money,” he said.