Gov. Sam Brownback praises Kansas teachers for their efforts

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks to a gathering of educators at the Wichita Marriott on Tuesday morning, (Aug. 11, 2015)
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks to a gathering of educators at the Wichita Marriott on Tuesday morning, (Aug. 11, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback told a group of educators in Wichita on Tuesday that their work matters, because teaching children to read is a proven way to reduce poverty.

“God bless you for what you do,” the governor said during a training session for the Kansas Reading Roadmap program. “Keep it up. Keep moving forward.”

The program, aimed at improving third-grade reading, will be in 44 schools across Kansas this year, including three in Wichita. Funded in part by the Department for Children and Families, it was a key initiative in Brownback’s election campaigns.

Brownback praised the program, which funnels some welfare dollars into education, and said he hopes to expand it.

“We need to step it up, I think, on education,” he said. “You’re part of that overall effort for us reducing childhood poverty, for us getting better outcomes.

“It happens early and it happens through you, and I know it’s tough, what you do.”

Brownback’s comments came hours after Wichita district leaders got their first detailed look at next year’s budget, which is set at about $4 million less than last year’s expenditures. The budget raises local property taxes, freezes teacher salaries and cuts about $6.5 million in nonpersonnel spending.

Answering questions from reporters after the speech at the Wichita Marriott, Brownback said state funding for education – including funds for low-income and other at-risk children – is sufficient.

“Each (district) has to deal with their own local budget. I know what we’re putting in at the state level is going up substantially,” he said.

“Plus, they’ll have much more flexibility now because … they can take the capital (outlay) block grants and use that in the classroom,” he said.

“That’s something that’s been a real problem for us for a long time: We build new buildings and then we don’t have monies to operate them.”

Brownback added that districts should explore consolidating or privatizing “back-office operations,” such as technology and human resources, to direct more money to classrooms.

“I want to see these teacher salaries go up. I want to see us getting more reading proficiency,” he said. “And we can do that, but it’s going to require, I think, some push.”

Jim Freeman, chief financial officer for Wichita schools, acknowledged that the district will get about $5.6 million in additional state aid this year. But nearly all of it – $5.3 million – is earmarked for the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System, he said.

Of the remaining $330,000 in additional aid, $270,000 is earmarked for special education. Meanwhile, the district’s costs for things such as utilities, transportation, food service and other areas are projected to rise by about $14 million, he said.

And this year, because of the switch to block grant funding, any enrollment increase won’t mean additional per-pupil state aid.

“Yes, we are getting some new funding,” Freeman said. “But we can’t use that money to hire a new teacher. We can’t pay the utility bills with it. It’s not money we can use to operate on.”

With this year’s budget, “Everything is pointed down for us,” he said. “The budget’s going down. Revenues are going down. But unfortunately, our enrollment is going up.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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