The largest school districts in Kansas have received millions in funding not allowed by state law, an audit found. More than $45 million has been given out in just the past five years.
Wichita, Maize, Andover, Derby and Valley Center are likely among the districts this year receiving unauthorized aid to help bus students to school. State auditors estimate Wichita alone will get $2.9 million more than the law allows.
Ending the unauthorized funding would slash Wichita’s state transportation aid by more than 50 percent, according to estimates.
The Kansas State Department of Education said it began making the payments decades ago after a request from lawmakers. “We were told to do this by the legislative body about 30 years ago,” said deputy education commissioner Dale Dennis.
The audit comes amid a growing debate among lawmakers over school funding. The Legislature must respond to a Kansas Supreme Court decision that found funding unconstitutionally inadequate.
A report released last week by the Legislature’s auditing arm found the Kansas State Department of Education is using a method to distribute transportation funding to districts that was repealed by the Legislature in the 1970s. The method results in districts with some of the highest population densities receiving more aid.
The state uses a formula to determine transportation funding for all school districts. But high-density districts receive additional money per student that is outside that formula, according to the report. The unauthorized payments, known as the minimum funding level, makes up half of the Wichita district’s transportation aid.
“KSDE officials told us they were aware that a minimum funding level for high-density districts was not part of the funding formula. However, they maintained the minimum at the request many years ago of several legislators to provide additional funding to large, high density school districts,” the audit report says.
“Although this request may have been made, state law does not allow for it.”
The audit report recommends that KSDE remove the minimum funding level beginning in the 2018-2019 school year. Auditors recommend the following school year so affected districts would have adequate notice.
Auditors also recommend that the Legislature review whether a minimum funding level is appropriate and should be placed into law.
“That gives the Legislature a chance to correct it,” Dennis said.
In a Dec. 1 letter sent in response to the audit, the agency described why it has been providing minimum funding. It does not say whether it will follow the recommendation of auditors and stop the practice, but says codifying the minimum funding level in law would be a “good idea.”
According to the letter, lawmakers told KSDE staff “many years ago” that they did not want the school finance formula to discriminate against high-density school districts. The agency also says the calculation has been explained and reviewed by “numerous legislative committees over the years.”
If KSDE stops using a minimum funding level, some districts would lose a large chunk of their transportation aid, according to estimates by auditors.
“The consequences are simple. You take a $3 million cut in Wichita and something has to go away. Whether they’re going to have to reduce busing, or reduce somewhere else – but something’s going to get impacted by it,” said G.A. Buie, director of the United School Administrators of Kansas.
For a handful of districts, the minimum funding level provides nearly half of their transportation aid. The minimum funding level accounts for 54 percent of Maize’s transportation aid, 53 percent for Wichita, and 49 percent for Shawnee Mission.
Andover would lose 23 percent of its transportation aid; Derby would lose 21 percent.
Auditors solicited feedback on the audit from Wichita, Shawnee Mission and Dodge City districts. The report says the three districts expressed concerns about the auditors’ recommendation that KSDE discontinue the funding minimum.
“The districts noted that changes to how the department allocates funding or how it counts students would likely lead to funding reductions that could be detrimental to students,” the report said.
Wichita superintendent Alicia Thompson said in a statement in response to the audit that “we have great concern regarding (the audit’s) recommendation that the Department of Education discontinue its long-standing past practice” of a minimum funding level.
“Fully recognizing the lack of statutory authority as the reason for the recommendation, the fact remains that removal of the funding minimum results in a reduction in transportation funding for Wichita of almost $3 million,” Thompson said.
Kansas provides funding to help transport students who live more than 2.5 miles away from school. Auditors found that it costs Wichita about $11.5 million per year to transport those students more than 2.5 miles away, but that the district receives only $8 million in state funding. The gap would be significantly larger without the minimum funding level.
Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican who sits on the legislative audit committee, called the report concerning.
“We probably need to work on this,” Olson said. “And what the right answer is, I don’t know it today. But we probably just need to working on it and studying it a little harder and get a better result than what we’ve got now.”