Conclusion of a two part column
Last week, we focused on the key words “suitable provision” within our Kansas Constitution. Our Supreme Court interprets these two words to mean “equitable and adequate.” Since the Gannon lawsuit was filed in 2010, the day Sam Brownback was elected as Governor, the measurement for determining “equitable and adequacy” has changed with each of the last five Supreme Court rulings.
So, who filed the Gannon lawsuit against Kansas taxpayers? Four school districts filed the original Gannon Court case in 2010 (note: not the original school funding lawsuit): Dodge City, Wichita, Hutchinson, and Kansas City of Wyandotte County. However, 80 of the state’s 286 total school districts have contributed money to Schools for Fair Funding – the entity that has paid millions of school district dollars to the lawyers that sue us, the tax payers. Augusta is the only school within the 77th District who has paid to sue. USD 402 has contributed as much as $20,645 in fiscal year 2005 down to $6,476 in FY 2018 and varied amounts in other years.
If funding is inadequate, are local school boards maximizing their local funding options? School boards are authorized (directly prior and after the end of the Block Grant that expired fiscal year 2017) taxing authority for what is called the local option budget (LOB) up to 33% of a formula-based number that allows for the ‘Supplemental General State Aid.’
If that’s confusing, let me describe in layman’s terms. School districts have a maximum level of local taxes they can raise through increasing property taxes (mill levy). That maximum level is NOT being utilized by many districts, which means they are taxing their patrons LESS than what they could. Simply put, the Wichita School District chooses to sue all Kansas tax payers in order to increase its funding instead of simply requiring the tax payers in its district to pay more to educate their own children. Wichita USD 259 is not alone in this practice and many school districts are charging lower local taxes while suing to get more funds from taxpayers outside their district and around the state – i.e. your income and sales taxes are being diverted to pay for their lower property taxes.
Let’s go back to the four schools that were part of the original lawsuit. These schools are NOT currently using their maximum taxing authority. If these four districts needed more funds for teacher raises or classroom enhancements, the money is already available today – without any more lawsuit wins or increased State funding. These four schools would need only to increase their local property tax rates to the statutory maximum levels and be subject to a 30-day protest petition.
These districts are suing YOU instead. In essence, by not maximizing their local funding authority, their actions indicate they would prefer for YOU, everyone else in the State, to pay MORE for their schools rather than ask their local voters/patrons.
Here’s the current fiscal year breakdown of the available LOB (raised to the max 33% allowed by current law) the four districts currently suing YOU have available:
• Dodge City, USD 443 -- $1,714,253 unused taxing authority
• Hutchinson, USD 308 -- $1,036,782 unused taxing authority
• Kansas City, USD 500 -- $5,183,549 unused taxing authority
• Wichita, USD 259 -- $11,422,696 unused taxing authority
And, they can make these increases without a lawsuit.
The total amount of unused LOB funds available to all the Kansas School Districts in 2017-2018 is $82,201,110. Districts, though representing themselves as underfunded, are not utilizing their maximum taxing authority to increase their own funding. They need to start filling their budget holes by taxing their own citizens.
For the schools in House District 77, here are the breakdowns of unused annual funds (based on current school year) as provided by Kansas Department of Legislative Research:
• Augusta, USD 402 $419,282 unused taxing authority
• Douglass, USD 396 $0, no unused taxing
• Rose Hill, USD 394 $21,040 unused taxing authority
• Andover, USD 385 $636,951 unused taxing authority
Besides Douglass and Rose Hill, both utilizing almost all of their existing tax resources, Andover and Augusta have enough monies to provide teacher raises, hire additional staff, or make classroom improvements without the lawsuit – it would only require utilizing their full taxing authority. If they don’t need the money, then don’t raise taxes, great!
If it is needed, then the school boards need to first look at LOB options that currently exist BEFORE using your tax dollars to pay attorney fees to be part of the on-going lawsuit which essentially sues every Kansas taxpayer.
The bottom line: we should all ask questions. It’s important to verify the facts that are provided to us – from your local, state, and federal officials, elected and unelected – including me.
Trust, but verify.
I challenge the constituents of the 77th District to investigate. Ask hard, detailed questions. Make your school officials explain the budget and spending issues until you understand them. Don’t let anyone hide behind jargon and accounting phrases.
Remember it is your money and they, school or state, are your employees - so insist on simplicity and clarity.
And while asking questions, consider these: IF funding is not adequate in our school district, where is the money going? What are our teachers getting paid (and as a former teacher I want our teachers paid well)? What are our administrators getting paid and what have their raises been the last 5 years? Is the expensive technology we’re buying being used well and are our children benefitting from these large and important investments? What are all the options for raising more funds? Would increasing the local mill levy to statutory maximum levels provide the new funding necessary to make a difference? How much additional money does your local school district need and for what purpose?
Questions are good. Asking the right questions -- even better. The school funding issues are not easy ones. So, let’s keep the discussion open. Let’s check our facts and keep asking more questions. Let’s not be satisfied with less than a clear, full picture.
I want great, well-funded schools – after all, my four children are in those schools. Their teachers and administrators are my friends and neighbors. I respect what they do and I want them treated well and fairly.
I encourage all of you to reach out to your School Boards and ask questions. Attend meetings. Read the budget reports.
Together, we make a difference.
Together, we find solutions.
Together, we build better communities, schools, and work places.
Thank you for the privilege of representing the 77th District. Stay in touch!
Rep. Kristey Williams