School funding tops legislative discussion

Rep. Don Schroeder begins the legislative coffee by reporting the progress of the state budget proposal. He said even after transfering $370,000 from the KDOT budget, the state still faces a $400 million revenue gap. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press
Rep. Don Schroeder begins the legislative coffee by reporting the progress of the state budget proposal. He said even after transfering $370,000 from the KDOT budget, the state still faces a $400 million revenue gap. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press

? Low turnout didn?t squelch discussion at Chamber forum.

The turnout was small, but those who came had a lot to say to their legislators during the annual legislative coffee Saturday morning sponsored by the Hillsboro Chamber of Com?merce.

With the same starting time as the annual Kiwanis Easter egg hunt across town, 16 constituents came to city hall to ask questions of State Rep. Don Schroeder and first-year State Sen. Rick Wilborn.

Schroeder opened the session by updating the group on the state budget process. He said the Legislature has yet to pass a budget proposal, but even with $370 million in fund transfers from the Kansas Department of Transporta?tion, the state still faces a $400 million revenue gap.

Focus on education

Within that context, it didn?t take long to figure what was on the mind of most attenders: K-12 public school funding, present and future.

Of specific concern was the so-called ?block grant? funding initiative that was rushed through the Legisla?ture and signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback.

The temporary funding plan will cost the six school districts in the Free Press distribution area a total of $350,000 in revenue reductions for the current school year with only slight gains in the following two years.

Questions that surfaced reflected the knowledge and experience of the three present or past Marion County superintendents who were in attendance.

Doug Huxman, former superintendent at Marion and Hillsboro and currently serving as a substitute administrator at Centre, opened the topic with a direct question: ?Where are you guys going to be on this issue??

Sen Rick Wilborn explains his position on the block-grant funding bill. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press
Sen Rick Wilborn explains his position on the block-grant funding bill. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press
Schroeder said he voted against the block-grant plan.

?I didn?t think it was all that good for many of our rural areas,? he said. ?Like so many things we have (to vote on) there are some good things and some bad in it.?

Schroeder said the plan?s flexibility to direct state funds might be a positive thing for districts, but he was bothered that the bill had no mechanism to adjust for changes in student population, and it did not identify the group that would be developing the new funding formula.

Wilborn said he voted for the bill?but only after it had already received enough votes to pass the Senate by the time it was his turn to vote.

?My concern on SB 7, had it failed, was it would have gone to a six-man committee,? he said, ?and I can tell you the make?up of that committee would not have been what you like.?

Wilborn said he hoped by voting yes, he might be in a position to have input in future legislation.

Steve Noble, USD 410 superintendent, said he understood the politics, but wished Wilborn had taken a public stand for education.

?I would have appreciated you saying this is wrong for schools,? he said.

Aside from the current funding reduction, Noble and Ron Traxson, superintendent for USD 398, both said little has been said in Topeka about future funding when the block-grant approach is set to expire.

?Two years down the road scares us more than what we?re looking at right now,? Traxson said. ?We don?t know what will happen when the block grant sunsets (in two years).?

Political motives

Beyond the funding issue, Noble expressed the negative impact of a proposed bill that would move local elections?which includes school districts and city offices?to the fall election season.

Noble said making people in small towns declare a party affiliation before running for local offices would only add to the challenge of getting people to serve.

Rep. Don Schroeder describes the gap between budget proposals and current revenues. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press
Rep. Don Schroeder describes the gap between budget proposals and current revenues. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press

Noble said he believes conservative state legislators are pushing for the change as a way to ?make school boards more in line (ideologically) with what?s happening in Topeka right now.?

Schroeder said he has similar suspicions.

?You look at the makeup of the House and Senate, and many of those people have served in local government at one point or another,? Schroeder said. ?(Making elections partisan) is a way to identify early on who the conservative or liberal members may be.?

Influential sources

Marion County Commis?sioner Dan Holub said Topeka seems to be approving legislation that harms counties, schools and cities?despite statewide organizations that represent their interests at the state level.

?Who are (legislators) listening to?? he asked.

Wilborn said the political interests of rural Kansas and urban Kansas?most specifically heavily populated Johnson County?are very different from the rest of the state and more conservative.

Noble mentioned ?three well-funded organizations? supported by Koch Industries that have become very influential in Topeka: Kansas Chamber of Com?merce, Americans for Pros?perity and the Ameri?can Legislative Exchange Council.

?Koch money buys influence,? Schroeder agreed.

Both Wilborn and Schroeder said their campaigns for office have not been endorsed by those organizations.

Prospects for change

Later in the meeting, Traxson asked what has to happen for the direction in Topeka to change.

Wilborn responded initially with one word: ?Crisis.? Voters will have to become fed up with the local impact of decisions being made by the majority voting block.

Wilburn and Schroeder agreed that the governor?s sweeping income-tax cuts signed into law in 2012 need to be moderated?to restore some of the cuts while keeping Kansas competitive with the income-tax rates of neighboring states.

Schroeder said he would like to see a return to the traditional ?three-legged stool? approach to generating state revenue. It proposes a roughly equal combination of income tax revenue, property tax revenue and sales tax revenue.

Schroeder added that a legislative initiative to return to that approach would not survive through the normal channels given the current political climate.

Beyond the future of public education, the session touched on issues such as expanding Medicaid, utility rates and support for renewable fuels, the death penalty and the negative financial impact on counties and cities of decisions made at the state level.