Disagreement in Topeka has hampered Kansas school districts’ planning for next year and has thrown some districts’ summer programs into upheaval.
Kansas must enact a new school finance formula by June 30 or risk a court-ordered shutdown of the state’s school districts. Districts are preparing for that possibility as a standoff between Gov. Sam Brownback and lawmakers over tax policy stretches into June.
The Kansas House and Senate passed a school funding bill Monday night that would add a net $488 million to state school funding over two years. But even if Brownback signs it, there’s no agreement on how Kansas will pay for it.
The state faces a roughly $900 million budget shortfall for the next two years without including any new funding for schools.
Lawmakers have struggled to come to a consensus on a tax and budget policy. Lawmakers passed a plan early Tuesday to raise $1.2 billion over two years through an increase to income tax rates, but Brownback quickly vetoed it.
Unless lawmakers can find enough votes to override the governor’s veto or persuade him to sign a compromise plan, funding for school districts will remain uncertain.
The Wichita school district, the state’s largest, is proceeding as usual until it receives more specific guidance, said superintendent John Allison. But he worries that summer operations, including summer child care and food programs, could be threatened by a possible shutdown.
He compared the looming deadline and potential shutdown to a funnel cloud on the horizon.
“While conditions may be ripe, no one really knows if a tornado’s going to land, where it’s going to land or how wide a swath of destruction that tornado may cause,” Allison said.
“It could be a (simple) disruption or it could be devastating when it comes to our ability to prepare and be ready for kids in the fall.”
Although school isn’t in session, June and July are busy months for school districts as officials plan schedules, order food, install technology, update student information systems and get new employees on board.
“Any disruption almost guarantees, in my mind, having an impact on the start of school,” Allison said. “That isn’t, ‘The sky is falling.’ It’s we have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
The Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has instructed its local members to hold off on negotiating salary and benefits until the Legislature comes up with a way to pay for the court-ordered funding boost.
“All of this has to be coupled with a tax bill,” said Mark Desetti, the legislative director of the KNEA. He called Brownback “divorced from reality.”
Brownback called the tax bill “bad for Kansas and bad for the many Kansans who would have more of their hard-earned money taken from them.” He called on lawmakers to pass an alternative fix to the state’s finances.
Nothing final at this point
Even if the Legislature does pass a budget fix before the end of the month, Kansans will have to wait for the Kansas Supreme Court to approve the school finance bill before they know whether schools will remain open.
Many education advocates say the proposed funding in the plan falls short of the court’s order for adequate funding, which could lead to a shutdown and require a special session.
Wichita officials said the proposed school finance formula could mean a boost of more than $20 million for the district for the coming school year.
But “nothing is final at this point,” said Susan Willis, the district’s chief financial officer.
“It’s always about what are the details and how the court will look at those details when it gets to them.”
If the sides reach a consensus on taxes this week, it probably will be several weeks until the court decides whether the proposed funding bill meets the constitutional requirement for adequate funding.
“Until the court rules, we’re not going to know whether this bill makes it or not,” Desetti said. “It’s entirely possible this bill gets through the court for at least one year, but why would you agree to everything at such uncertain times?”
Waiting on court
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, said lawmakers should not think of June 30 as their deadline because districts won’t have certainty until the court rules.
“I don’t know how to express how late in the game it is,” she said. “It’s a very risky move to stay stuck where we are. And I hope we can get moving.”
School districts must submit their budgets to the Kansas Department of Education by Aug. 25, according to Dale Dennis, the state’s deputy education commissioner in charge of school finance.
During this time of year, the Department of Education helps guide districts through the budget process, but Dennis said that agency cannot conduct its workshops with school districts until the court rules.
“The court’s got to sign off on it before we provide them the software to compute their local budgets,” he said.