AP ANALYSIS: Johnson County shapes schools debate

3/16/2014

By JOHN HANNA

By JOHN HANNA

AP Political Writer

TOPEKA (AP) — As Kansas lawmakers fashion a plan to meet a court mandate to increase aid to the state's poor school districts, the concerns of the state's most populous county complicate the debate.

Legislators and Gov. Sam Brownback can't ignore the Kansas City suburbs and farther-out communities in Johnson County. Nearly 22 percent of the state's voters live there, and no other county provides more sales or income tax revenues to the state's coffers to help pay for public schools. The county is home to three of the four school districts in Kansas with the most students — Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley.

Some Johnson County legislators are uneasy with preliminary discussions following the Kansas Supreme Court's ruling March 7 in an education funding lawsuit. They worry that as lawmakers help poor districts, schools in relatively affluent Johnson County will come out the losers.

"I think absolute bare minimum is, everyone needs to stay whole," said Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.

But addressing the concerns of Johnson County legislators won't be easy.

Like the full Legislature, the county's delegation is dominated by small-government conservative Republicans who were key supporters of Brownback's successful push to slash state income taxes to stimulate the economy. Yet the county has vocal, pro-public education groups and longtime residents who believe excellent schools built its prosperity, arguing that public education is under-funded by the state by at least several hundred million dollars a year.

"You have a divided sense coming out of the Johnson County delegation," said John Robb, a Newton attorney representing the parents and districts suing the state. "They do not speak with one mind."

The Supreme Court ruled that past cuts in aid to poor districts created unconstitutional funding gaps between them and wealthier districts, ordering lawmakers to fix the problems by July 1. The state Department of Education estimates the cost of fully reversing the cuts at $129 million a year.

Democratic legislative leaders argued last week that lawmakers should add the full amount to the state budget, covering the cost with the state's cash reserves. Brownback said he's not offering specific advice, though he said last week, "Fortunately, we've got some resources."

Some of Brownback's fellow GOP conservatives in the Legislature oppose the idea or don't think it will pass. Projections from lawmakers' research staff already show cash reserves will disappear by July 2017 because of the income tax cuts. Even Republicans who think the predictions are too pessimistic want the state to have a healthy financial cushion.

Some Republicans on the House and Senate budget committees said legislators should either cut other parts of the budget or shift dollars around within the existing pot for public schools.

"It might have to come internally from the education budget we've got right now," said Tom Arpke, a Salina Republican and chairman of the Senate Ways and Means subcommittee on education.

But Connie Owen, an Overland Park attorney who grew up in the county and still has a son in an Olathe high school, called the idea "idiotic."

"You provide good schools, and people will follow. That's exactly what happened in Johnson County," she said. "It does a terrible disservice to our state to create and aggravate divisiveness between Johnson County and the rest of the state."

The county has six school districts, and the one with the most students, Olathe, would receive an additional $8.2 million from the state if lawmakers reversed the cuts in aid to poor districts. The money is distributed through formulas guaranteeing at least a few dollars to 233 of the state's 286 districts, according to Department of Education figures.

But north of Olathe, the Blue Valley district would receive only $64,000 in extra funds, and Shawnee Mission, nothing, though between them, they have nearly 50,000 students.

The state allows districts to supplement their base state aid by levying extra local property taxes for general operations and for capital improvements. When poor school districts do so, the state provides extra dollars to help them catch up with their wealthier cousins. Reductions in that extra aid were the problem identified by the Supreme Court.

"School districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort," the justices wrote in their unsigned opinion.

Sen. Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican, said the statement appears aimed at Johnson County. Both the Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission districts have at least 68 percent more property wealth per student than the state median, a clear advantage in raising property tax dollars.

Furthermore, Smith noted, the state collects nearly a quarter of its sales and income tax revenues from Johnson County, meaning its dollars flow to other parts of the state.

"Johnson County is the goose that lays the golden egg for school finance," Smith said. "No other county wants to change that."

Political Writer John Hanna has covered state government and politics since 1987. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/apjdhanna

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