Meeting payroll would be an open question. Payments to vendors would be delayed. Employees who fear missing a paycheck might leave.
Wichita public schools superintendent John Allison outlined a cascade of consequences if lawmakers fail to meet a June 30 deadline to put a new school funding system in place. The Kansas Supreme Court set the deadline in a March decision that found the current law inadequate.
The House has a school finance bill awaiting debate. Another plan is under construction in a Senate committee. But lawakers have been at odds over whether to pass school finance or tax legislation first.
If the Legislature does not meet the June 30 deadline, Kansas will be left without a mechanism to fund schools. Without state funding, schools could close.
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That would create an “undesirable ripple,” Allison said of a closure.
Gym floors wouldn’t be stripped and waxed. Musical instruments wouldn’t be cared for. Classrooms would not be deep-cleaned.
“Much unheralded work happens behind the scenes to prepare our schools for next August,” Allison told lawmakers on Friday.
For now, Wichita and other local school districts are operating normally. Wichita, the state’s largest district, is renewing teaching contracts and filling vacancies despite budget uncertainties. The district is holding a job fair for prospective teachers on June 5.
Last year, a hiring freeze during the legislative session caused challenges for Wichita schools. Vacancies piled up over the spring, and many student teachers took jobs elsewhere, leaving the district with nearly three times the usual number of jobs to fill over the summer.
Shannon Krysl, director of human resources for the district, filled some of the spots with long-term substitutes and worked through the fall to find full-time teachers.
This year, there’s no plan to freeze hiring despite looming budget questions, said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman.
Officials in Maize, Andover, Derby and Valley Center said they’re using normal procedures with contract renewals.
“We’ve proceeded as if all staff are returning and additional resources will be available,” said Cory Gibson, superintendent in Valley Center.
Nicole Gibbs, spokeswoman for Andover schools, said that district has been “conservative in our hiring of certified staff” but expects to hire about eight new teachers for the 2017-18 school year.
‘Waiting and hoping’
As the clock keeps ticking with no new formula in place, districts will have to make difficult decisions, said Rep. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, who was the superintendent of a suburban-rural district near the city before she was elected.
Districts will have to answer these questions, among others: Do you hold summer school? Are you going to hire staff? Do you have to make reductions?
“You don’t want to create any unintended consequences for yourself, so we normally approached it from a very conservative standpoint. You can always add, you can’t subtract,” Dietrich said.
In 2015, the Legislature scrapped the school funding formula the state had been using since the early ’90s. Lawmakers replaced the system with a block grant law that proponents said was intended to be temporary.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the block grant system is inadequate. The court is requiring lawmakers to develop a new formula by June 30. Under the court’s order, the block grant system will be void after June 30.
That’s a key difference between now and the early ’90s – the last time the Legislature created a full-fledged school finance formula, said G.A. Buie, director of the United School Administrators of Kansas.
“Today, come July 1, we don’t have a funding mechanism. So I think the anxiety is much higher today,” Buie said.
Randal Chickadonz, superintendent in Rose Hill, said he assumes that district will get at least as much as last year. If per-pupil funding decreases – Rose Hill has lost about 100 students over the past few years – the district will make up the difference with cuts next year, he said.
“We find ourselves becoming more reactionary, and it’s tough to know anything until the final bill goes through,” he said. “At this point, we’re just waiting and hoping.”
Lawmakers are divided over the amount of new funding schools should receive and how to pay for it. The House plan would increase spending by $278 million over two years; the Senate plan currently includes a $234 million increase over two years, but the committee has not yet voted on it.
Both plans have dramatically lower spending levels than an initial version of the House legislation, which called for a $750 million increase over five years.
The court has not said how much funding is needed for the formula to be adequate. Jeff King, an attorney and former senator hired by the Legislature to work on school finance, has said justices are more likely to look favorably on funding targeted toward at-risk students.
The source of funding has also put lawmakers at odds. Increases in the House plan would be paid for by the state general fund, but the Senate plan would implement a utility surcharge to generate revenue for schools.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said the Senate was 10 days behind where he expected to be on school finance.
Some lawmakers have direct experience in school districts and on school boards, but too many don’t grasp what the uncertainty means, said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita.
“This is the 18th day” of the wrap-up session, Ward said on Thursday. “We’re no closer than we were on the first day.”