An Eagle editorial said school superintendents are frustrated by what they say are misleading claims about school spending and the availability of large fund balances (May 6 Opinion). The Eagle editorial board believes those frustrations are justified, but the board is only getting one side of the story.
It is indeed frustrating to have school districts and their lobbyists claim for more than a year that their fund balances can't or shouldn't be used, only to learn that most districts now admit they are using some of that money to pay for a spending increase this year.
Districts started the year with about $700 million in funds that could be used, and they now report those balances are being spent down by $191 million. They used that money to increase their current operating costs this year.
Districts said they were being forced to dramatically reduce spending, but they just reported that total spending will increase $262.8 million this year, with $163.4 million of the increase in current operating costs. Statewide, 174 districts now admit they will spend more on operating costs this year, including six districts in Sedgwick County and four districts in Butler County.
It's true that they used some of their reserves to pay bills when the state chose to pay them late. The Kansas Policy Institute encouraged legislators to force the state to pay schools on time.
It's also true that those reserve balances represent aid received in prior years that wasn't spent. This year and next seem like good times to use the money as originally intended.
Districts have claimed aid per pupil is severely reduced but now admit that KPI ads are correct; total aid per pupil is only 3 percent less than last year and 26 percent higher than five years ago.
The editorial also said I "suggested that schools may be making certain budget cuts deliberately to anger parents." That's another of those frustrating distortions. I said districts were encouraged in public meetings by members of the 2010 Commission and the State Board of Education to make "high-profile" changes that would anger parents and generate support for tax increases. I did not say any districts took that advice, but noted that they certainly had options to avoid classroom cuts, such as using their carryover reserves to offset their expected 3 percent decline in per-pupil aid or reducing noninstructional operating costs, which jumped 25 percent in the preceding four years.
KPI is simply refuting claims made by districts and their lobbyists, and they may be frustrated at having to explain the rest of the story that we discovered. Our research and studies published by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit show that schools can meet state requirements and operate much more efficiently.
That should be seen as good news. Instead, taxpayers have been fed a steady stream of misleading claims to justify an unnecessary tax increase that will put thousands more Kansans out of work.
Now that is frustrating.