By Bryan Lowry

A bill that overhauls the way schools are funded in Kansas was signed by Gov. Sam Brownback in a closed ceremony Wednesday.

SB 7 replaces the state's 23-year-old school funding formula, which allocated money based on districts' specific needs, with flexible block grants.

The bill reduces funding that districts had expected for the current school year. But supporters say the greater flexibility will ensure that no districts have to make cuts.

The Wichita school district will lose $4.8 million in overall funding for the current year after the bill goes into effect.

Brownback first touted the idea of block grants during his State of the State address in January. He offered it as a way to end the acrimony over school funding, which has resulted in lawsuits against the state.

However, a three-judge panel signaled earlier this month that it might move to block the legislation from going into effect while it considers the latest lawsuit over funding.

The panel added the state's treasurer, who oversees payments to school districts, and the revisor of statutes, who oversees the publication of laws, to the lawsuit as defendants.

"For the first time ever, we will spend more than $4 billion to support K12 education in Kansas. At the same time we are providing those closest to the classroom -- teachers and parents -- direct control over the future of education by getting money into the classroom to immediately benefit Kansas students," the governor said in a news release.

The release noted that overall state funding for K-12 would be $4.09 billion in the 2015-16 school year and $4.16 billion in 2016-17.

The bulk of the overall increase will go toward pensions and is money districts cannot use for daily operations.

Funding gaps

For the current year, the bill restores $28 million in across-the-board cuts the governor made earlier this year. But it reduces aid meant to address funding gaps among districts by $51 million, which will affect some districts, such as Wichita, more than others.

A lawyer for school districts suing the state has said the block-grant bill would be unconstitutional because it increases funding gaps among districts and locks in that inequity for two years.

It keeps operational funding mostly flat after that point. Wichita and many other districts had voiced strong opposition.

"We're disappointed, because the block-grant bill reduces current-year funding, does not restore those dollars," said Diane Gjerstad, lobbyist for the Wichita school district. "So we enter next year with a reduction. And the block grant treats school districts as if we're static. And we know that the dynamics within school districts change. Our enrollment changes, the demographics change. And this bill does not recognize that."

School districts in Hutchinson, Kansas City and Topeka have also been outspoken in their opposition to the bill, as have several smaller school districts.

The bill had been pushed by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, organizations with ties to Koch Industries. Both groups say the shift to block grants will steer more money toward the classroom.

"There's clearly very little support for this bill outside of the Koch people. ... The entire education community is not in favor of this bill," said Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Two Johnson County districts have been supportive, however.

"While the bill is not ideal, it represents a genuine effort to continue current funding levels for the next two years," Tom Triggs, the superintendent of the Blue Valley school district, wrote to lawmakers in an e-mail earlier in the month.

Decreases earmarks

Under the block-grant system, local school districts will be able to spend state dollars for whatever purpose they choose. The current system earmarks dollars for specific purposes, such as building maintenance or transportation costs.

Three areas of funding will still be inflexible: pensions, special education and money meant for interest payments on bonds.

The block-grant formula is intended to be in place through the 2016-17 school year, after which lawmakers plan to adopt a new funding formula.

"I look forward to working with the legislature to develop an education funding plan that not only provides more money to the classroom but is sustainable, stable and predictable," Brownback said in his release.

Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, has already offered a bill to create a new formula that would tie school district funding to students' success after graduation.

No fanfare

The bill signing took place quietly with no reporters present.

It happened in the middle of the day, but the administration did not send out a notice about it until after 6 p.m. It then posted a photo on the governor's Facebook page showing him signing the bill, flanked by Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and legislative leaders from the House and Senate.

After the Legislature passed the block-grant bill last week, reporters asked the governor's staff whether he planned to hold a signing ceremony, as he did with last year's school finance bill.

"The governor signs a lot of bills, and we don't do signing ceremonies for most of them," Eileen Hawley, the governor's communications director, said Wednesday.

"After we reviewed the bill today and the governor decided to sign it, legislators were invited to come down if they wanted to do that," Hawley said. "We did this quickly during the break for the Senate. ... It was just one of four bills the governor signed today."

Others questioned the closed ceremony. David Reber, a teacher from the Lawrence school district, posted this on the governor's Facebook page: "Governor, I'm curious. Why did you sign this bill ... behind closed doors, with no advanced notice, and no invitation for the press or any outsiders?

"If this is so good for schools, where are all the teachers, administrators, and school board members while you're signing? They sure aren't there behind you," his post continued. "The reality is this bill cuts about $51 million, and sets up a major shift to local property taxes. It guarantees inequity. Shameful."

(c)2015 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)