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Kansas schools should return millions in transportation payments, legislator says

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning an Overland Park Republican says schools should pay back state for over payment on transportation
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning an Overland Park Republican says schools should pay back state for over payment on transportation Kansas Legislature

Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning says public school districts that benefited from millions diverted their way to cover transportation costs may have to pay that money back.

In a letter to Kansas State Board of Education Chairman Jim Porter, Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said that since 1992 the state’s school funding formula stipulates that if a school district is paid more than it’s suppose to get, that district “must remit those funds to the State Board of Education.”

“We think they would be very unjustified” to force districts to pay back the money, said Mark Tallman, associate executive director of Kansas Association of School Boards.

In December a state audit found that the department of education had, without state law authorization, used a formula to over five years allocate an extra $45 million in transportation funding to some of the most densely populated school districts in the state.

The formula in question ignored a statutory formula set more than 40 years ago.

State educators argue legislators were aware the unauthorized formula was being used.

Last week Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, a Republican from Olathe, demanded that Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis be suspended for carrying out the unauthorized formula.

Dennis has said that the allocations were made at the direction of legislative leaders who in the early 1980s said they wanted to assure that school transportation funding would not shortchange urban districts. He said the formula to make that happen has been used for more than 30 years.

Calling Dennis a “best friend” of Kansas kids and public education in the state, teachers unions and school district boards have expressed support of Dennis and asked that no action be taken against the long-time education official.

The State Board of Education voted against the legislative leaders’ suspension suggestions, saying Dennis’ allocation method was appropriate and known.

Among the 20 or so districts to benefit from the questioned transportation formula are Blue Valley, Shawnee Mission, Kansas City, Kan., Wichita, Topeka, Bonner Springs, Leavenworth and Lawrence.

The audit indicates that the districts involved received $8 million to $11.5 million in additional funding each year for the last five years.

Paying back that money could mean districts might have to pull from their reserves, take money from other spending areas, or in some cases establish a special tax to raise the money, Tallman said.

He said the audit that led legislators to question the transportation payments in the first place said the districts that are getting more money “actually do have higher costs than the statutory formula would compensate them for. The new audit says it looks like the extra help is justified but not authorized.”

Still, Denning says that if state educators did not have the statutory authority to make the payments, the State Board of Education should establish plan for how the funds would be repaid. He called for a response from the state board by 5 p.m. Thursday

In addition, the school board association said Wednesday that lawmakers now want probes into the transportation funding issue. And Attorney General Derek Schmidt has called for a further audit to see if there are any other unauthorized payments being made.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc