A statewide shutdown of Kansas schools is more likely this year because lawmakers face a complex funding fix and a looming court-ordered deadline, Wichita district officials said.
“The threat of school closures is back on the table, and … the situation this fiscal year is probably more serious than last,” said Susan Willis, chief finance officer for Wichita schools.
“We’re hoping for the best but planning for the worst.”
A conservative lawmaker from Wichita, meanwhile, said the school district could draw from its reserves to plan for next year and that officials shouldn’t use fear to influence public opinion.
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“I’m disappointed that once again the school administration is using scare tactics to try and force this issue, and it doesn’t help,” said Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita.
“It doesn’t help the negotiations and the debate to have the school district using threats of shutdowns. It just muddies the water.”
In a ruling last month, the Kansas Supreme Court said the state’s block grant funding system for schools is inadequate and unconstitutional. The court gave lawmakers until June 30 to craft a new school finance formula or potentially face statewide school closures.
Districts faced a similar threat last year following a February 2016 ruling that said school funding was not distributed fairly among districts. During a two-day special session, lawmakers crafted a solution that passed court muster and prevented a statewide shutdown.
For that fix last June, lawmakers cobbled together $38 million from a variety of funding sources and did not increase the state’s overall budget.
This time they’ll need a lot more – as much as $500 million to $800 million, according to some estimates – and likely would have to raise taxes to get it. That sets up a much messier and longer debate, said Wichita superintendent John Allison.
“The state’s in a deeper financial hole and will require something to be done from a taxation standpoint,” Allison said.
“So the complexity and just the size of the issue is of a much greater magnitude than we faced last year.”
A shutdown, even over the summer, could have wide-ranging implications for the state’s 286 school districts.
In Wichita, it would mean no summer latchkey program and could send families of about 1,200 kids scrambling for child care. It would halt a summer food program run by the district that serves meals at dozens of sites. It would block access to student records for college, scholarship or job applications.
And it would leave school district employees and vendors wondering about their next paychecks – an economic impact estimated at about $50 million a month.
Last year, fearing that the Supreme Court’s threat to shut down schools could become a reality, thousands of Wichita teachers opted for a lump-sum summer paycheck in June.
Lynn Rogers, a Wichita school board member and state senator, said a shutdown could be disastrous but that districts need to plan for the possibility.
“I think it’s overly optimistic, based on what little we’ve done in regards to school finance so far, to think we’ll have something ready before June 1 at the very earliest,” said Rogers, D-Wichita.
“The court is serious, but I don’t think the Legislature is taking it seriously.”
It’s unclear exactly what would happen if lawmakers are unable to craft a school finance formula and a mechanism to fund it by the June 30 deadline. If the Legislature is making progress toward a fix, the court could extend its deadline.
Whitmer said he supported an initial House committee proposal that would have boosted state funding by more than $75 million next year.
“But some of my more liberal colleagues feel like it’s not enough money and it’s too slow,” he said.
Whitmer said he and other House conservatives “want to see more accountability and some school choice components” included in any school finance formula.
He added that the Supreme Court ruling focused on “making sure money is spent differently, not necessarily that we need more money.”
“The court really emphasized the importance of putting money toward those students who are underserved, and I think they’re getting lost in this whole discussion,” Whitmer said.
Allison said the court clearly ruled that overall funding for schools was inadequate. Coming up with a solution likely won’t be clear or quick, he said.
“It’s going to be difficult to solve. … There’s lots of apprehension not only in Wichita but across the state,” Allison said.
“It’s not what anyone likes, but that’s kind of where we are at this stage.”