School districts in Wichita, Lawrence, Hays and elsewhere in the state are in various stages of closing or consolidating schools for lack of state funding, which means the affected families and employees are going through the various stages of grief. But that hasn’t stopped House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, and others from treating districts like cash hoarders.
O’Neal is even pushing a measure that would force school districts to either spend their reserves or cut property taxes.
The speaker is among those irked that more districts didn’t take advantage of a 2011 provision giving them more flexibility to dip into fund balances for general expenses.
“These funds should be returned to the taxpayer rather than stockpiled by the districts,” O’Neal said in introducing his use-it-or-lose-it bill.
Perhaps the speaker should meet with parents, staff and students at Emerson Open Magnet Elementary School, and tell them about all the extra money school districts have but aren’t spending. Emerson is one of five school buildings the school board voted earlier this month to close, trying to cope with the state’s rollback of base per-pupil spending to 1999 levels while delivering the promised new schools and improved facilities of the 2008 bond issue.
And as school board member Lynn Rogers said in House testimony about O’Neal’s H.B. 2773: “This bill seems to imply school boards choose to reduce staffing or cut programs in favor of keeping funds in accounts. This is simply not correct.”
Yet that thinking also fueled the House Appropriations Committee’s vote to withhold $29 million from schools for the current year – money to cover costs stemming from higher enrollment and other unexpected needs.
“We’re trying to encourage the school districts to use what they have,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton.
Over his objection, the House voted 116-1 Friday to tap the transportation plan and restore the $29 million – a welcome acknowledgment of what schools are facing that will be worth following in the days to come.
There are sound fiscal reasons for schools to have reserves, including the recent years when the state’s spotty cash flow delayed or shortchanged payments to districts. Many conservative Republicans started urging districts to build up their ending balances a few years ago to be prepared for such periods.
As Rogers pointed out to the committee in his testimony against O’Neal’s bill, referring to research by the Wichita accounting firm Allen, Gibbs and Houlik, school districts have to stretch their major tax distributions, which occur in January and June, to cover their obligations in between. While the Wichita district may have $16.9 million in its special education fund in June, that’s not extra cash; it will be needed to help cover $23.5 million in salary obligations before state aid for that fund comes in Oct. 15. While its $14.8 million in contingency reserves may sound like a lot, that’s only eight days of operating cash in a district with 50,000 students. Wichita district officials also warn that depleted fund balances could lead to higher interest rates on bonds.
A least state senators seem to be better aware of reality, as the Senate Education Committee acknowledged in setting aside Gov. Sam Brownback’s sweeping school-finance plan for this session. The committee approved a plan last week that would use some of the state’s projected surplus to boost school funding over two years by $112 million, including by increasing base state aid by $37 per pupil.
That’s a step in the right direction. Kansans need to contact their lawmakers and let them know that the problem with K-12 schools isn’t unspent reserves but the state’s broken promises.