House to schools: shift money from special programs to routine expenses

TOPEKA – The House today approved a bill to allow school districts to shift money from special funds such as bilingual education, at-risk programs and building construction, to cover their routine operating expenses.

Representatives also approved a measure that would require school districts to report their budgets in a consistent manner across the state to make it easier to compare spending from district to district.

After an hourlong debate, representatives by voice vote advanced House Substitute for Senate Bill 111, which breaks down most of the spending "silos" that limit how local school boards can spend special-purpose money.

The bill specifies that the districts would have the increased spending flexibility for a year, although some representatives said that would likely be extended and possibly made permanent.

The districts would not be allowed to shift any bond funds because the state Constitution limits use of that money to the purpose approved by voters.

Supporters said the bill gives school districts the flexibility to deal with an ongoing financial crisis – even if it means dropping programs that were once considered high priorities by the Legislature.

House Speaker Mike O'Neal, who took the very rare step of carrying the bill on the floor himself, said it could free up $358 million for the next year.

"School districts are publicly stating that because of restrictions, they don't have enough money to hire this teacher or that teacher," said O'Neal, R-Hutchinson. "We want to provide them with flexibility so they cannot be heard to say 'we did not hire this schoolteacher because of some arbitrary legislative rule against moving dollars around.'"

Rep. Pat Colloton, R-Leawood, who supported the bill, conceded that it means local school boards could vote to end programs such as bilingual instruction or vocational education and spend the money on football or band trips.

"If that's what the school board feels is priority for their school district, that's local control," she said.

She added that she thinks local boards will use their newfound flexibility responsibly. An example might be that a district could decide to take a year off from building its fund for future textbook purchases and spend the money to head off teacher layoffs.

Opponents say it does nothing to solve the underlying problem, which is that schools have taken and will take more substantial cuts in their base state funding.

"This is another illusion to avoid facing the issue of school funding," said Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita. "This is just moving money around to try and say we (the House) are doing something different, but we're really not."

The bill originally passed the Senate unanimously in March as an innocuous measure to tweak the timing of some special education funds. The House added all the controversial provisions.

The chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, said the bill will probably go to a House-Senate conference committee and she doesn't know how the House's additions will fare with senators.

She said, "wants to show that school districts really do have money and they can spend from some of those funds to make up for cuts."

But in reality, she said, school districts with nimble bookkeepers have already found ways to shift some of the money to other uses.

"There isn't as much money in those funds and the speaker would like to think," Schodorf said.

The list of funds that could be shifted includes: at-risk education; bilingual education; contingency reserve; driver training; parent education; preschool-aged at-risk; professional development; summer program; virtual school; vocational education, textbooks and some special education money.

Under an amendment added on the floor by Colloton, a portion of school districts' capital building funds could be used to pay for fire insurance and/or utility bills.

The school accounting bill, Senate Bill 21, was once controversial but ended up passing on a unanimous voice vote.

The idea behind it is to give lawmakers and budget writers the ability to easily compare district to district to see how schools across the state are spending their money.

"I believe that it will lead to helping us make better decisions with the good uniform data it will provide," said Rep. Lana Gordon, R-Topeka, who carried the measure on the floor.

School districts initially opposed the measure, saying that changes to generate the extra reporting to meet the state's demands would cost money they can ill afford to spend in a time of deep cuts to school budgets.

But they worked with the education budget committee and came up with a less-burdensome process, said Diane Gjerstad, the lobbyist for Wichita Unified School District 259. She said the district supports the final version of the bill.

"Wichita public schools have been the leader in modifying our budget to make it more understandable to our patrons," she said.