A revision in the way Kansas calculates aid for school district projects could help lower property taxes for residents across the state — and could have profound effects on Newton Unified School District 373.


The Senate unanimously signed off on legislation last week to provide additional support for bonds issued to fund facility improvements. The formula changes would apply to future bond projects, as well as those issued in the past five years.


The proposed changes, including a major change to Fort Leavenworth, could mean dramatic savings for bonds issued in Newton USD 373, which has seen two failed bond elections — and three bond questions overall — in less than five years.


Most recently a $61 million bond to renovate Newton High School while making improvements to elementary and middle schools failed. With it a second bond to build a new elementary school south of US-50 died as well. This came on the heels of a failed bond issue for renovations to the high school and elementary schools that clocked in at about $59 million just two years before.


Under a formula adopted in 2015, the state calculates assistance based on how a school district compares to the district with the lowest assessed property value per pupil.


According to bond council for USD 373, proposed changes at the Legislature would mean lower property tax increases for Newton property owners if a bond issue were to be successful. For example, the net increase required for Question 1 ($61 million bond) would be a net increase of 2.14 mills, as compared to 7.44 mills proposed in 2019 — a decrease of about 5.3 mills.


According to legislators, the current aid numbers are skewed because Fort Leavenworth USD 207 sits on a military base with virtually no taxable property.


For the current school year, 127 districts were eligible to receive state aid for general obligation bonds. The number of eligible districts is expected to drop below 100 within five years.


The proposed change in state law would remove Fort Leavenworth, as well as students enrolled in virtual schools, from the formula. As a result, 175 districts would be eligible for aid.


“Many of these districts are the ones that need equalization the most to be able to locally afford basic capital improvement projects,“ said Sen. Kevin Braun, a Republican from Kansas City whose district includes Fort Leavenworth.


Several school districts offered support for the bill because of the relief it would provide to local taxpayers. In Concordia, for instance, the difference equates to 7 mills, or $192 for a $200,000 home.


Justin Coup, superintendent of Solomon USD 393, said a 2017 bond issue failed to win support of voters because they failed to understand why local property owners should be responsible for 100% of the bond payments. Under an older formula, the state had picked up the tab on 25% of a 1994 bond issue.


The 2017 proposal would have paid for asbestos abatement and demolition of a 1964 school, the replacement facility, and upgrades to HVAC units. Residents of the Saline and Dickinson County district rejected the $10.9 million project by a 60-40 margin.


“Our taxpayers saw the price tag as just too much to bear at that time,” Coup said. “This bill will allow equity to be put back into future bonds and allow the Solomon district and many other districts to plan for their future.”


— The Topeka Capital-Journal contributed to this story.