Bill would hike state aid

By BOB JOHNSON
Register City Editor

State Rep. Bill Otto is author of a school funding measure that will be introduced as an Education Committee bill when the 2010 session opens next week. Otto represents the Ninth District, which includes all of Allen County.
The bill would raise the statewide property tax levy that generates money to meet most public school needs by 15 mills to 35, a level it was in the mid-1990s before the Legislature made a series of tax cuts prompted by a robust economy. In the past 18 months, school districts have faced substantial state aid reductions because of revenue shortfalls in Topeka. USD 257 has lost $1.1 million.
While the measure would raise the statewide levy, it would not be as much of a tax increase as it appears. In concert with the higher levy, the cap on the local option budget, funded by a local levy and state aid, would be lowered to 22 percent of a district’s general fund. The cap today is 30 percent with opportunity by referendum for 31 percent.
Otto told the Register the change would be financially beneficial for essentially all of the state’s 297 districts and that only the wealthiest districts would see a property tax increase of any significance. Among those are districts in such counties as Coffey and Johnson.
The property tax change would raise basic state aid per pupil to $4,560. After a series of cuts to deal with lagging state revenue, per pupil state aid today is $4,012; before the cuts it had reached $4,433.
According to information provided by the Kansas Department of Education and based on this year’s budget figures, USD 257’s general fund would increase from $9,651,668 to $10,771,440. This year’s LOB is $3,202,388; with a cap of 22 percent of the general fund, it would drop $845,871 to $2,356,517. That would be a net gain in spending authority in the two funds of $213,901.
Dr. Craig Neuenswander, superintendent of USD 257 schools, said those figures would not play out exactly, mainly because of changes in enrollment. This year the district lost about 110 students, but it was permitted to figure the budget with last year’s enrollment. Next school year the enrollment loss will affect the budget. Neuenswander anticipates a state aid loss of $267,000 under current state budget numbers because of the enrollment decrease.

OTTO SAID he thought introducing the funding change as an Education Committee bill, per instructions from House leadership, gave it a better chance of success.
“If it were introduced through the taxation or appropriations committees, I wouldn’t be too confident,” he said.
For the bill to advance, it will have to overcome the no-new-tax-increase attitude held by many among the dominant Republican membership of the House. Otto admits that will be a challenge, but counters the LOB cut makes the 15-mill statewide hike a wash, except in the wealthiest of districts. Those districts are in counties represented by a majority of House members.