Area school districts seeking additional funds under ‘extraordinary need’ provision

First-grade teacher Holly Baalman prepares for a practice math test at West Elementary School in Valley Center. The Valley Center school district is applying for additional money from the state under its “extraordinary need” fund. (May 8, 2015)
First-grade teacher Holly Baalman prepares for a practice math test at West Elementary School in Valley Center. The Valley Center school district is applying for additional money from the state under its “extraordinary need” fund. (May 8, 2015) File photo

Several Wichita-area school districts are seeking additional dollars from the state to help keep up with growing enrollment.

Wichita, Goddard and Valley Center are among districts asking for more money under the state’s newly established “extraordinary need fund.”

This is the first year schools are operating under the new block grant system for state funding. Unlike the old school funding formula, which Gov. Sam Brownback successfully sought to repeal earlier this year, the block grant system does not adjust funding automatically when a district’s enrollment increases.

Districts must apply to receive additional aid and show that they have “extraordinary need.”

Already, 22 mostly rural school districts are seeking a total of about $6.5 million more to make up for dips in property tax revenue. Garden City, for example, is seeking $606,977.

Other districts, including Wichita, the state’s largest, will seek additional money because of increases in enrollment. Those applications are due to the Department of Education at 5 p.m. Monday.

The State Finance Council will decide how to distribute up to $12.3 million in additional aid. The council, led by the governor, includes legislative leaders from both parties.

Goddard is requesting $697,725 after seeing its enrollment grow by 175 students this year, said Dane Baxa, spokesman for the Goddard school district.

Goddard has seen its enrollment grow 31 consecutive years. The district has been able to limit the impact of statewide budget cuts in the past because of that growth but is concerned about how that will work under the block grant system, Baxa said.

“I think now more than ever our parents are going to see changes in class sizes,” Baxa said. “It’s going to become very real across the state of how these funding decisions are impacting students in the classroom.”

Cory Gibson, superintendent of the Valley Center school district, said it requested $262,000 more because it will have 68 more students this year than it did last year.

Despite the enrollment increase, Gibson said, the district has cut its number of classroom teachers because of funding constraints.

“There are only nine districts in the state that spend less per student than we do. I think we’re doing the best we can with the dollars we have available,” Gibson said. “And yet we’re now under more of a crunch, we’re under additional pressure, because we have additional students that we need to help support.”

Wichita will also apply for more funding because of additional students, but Diane Gjerstad, the district’s government relations manager, would not say Friday how much it planned to seek.

The Derby and Haysville school districts said they would not seek extraordinary need funding. The Andover district said it was still evaluating whether to apply for the extra dollars.

Money in the classroom

State budget director Shawn Sullivan said in an e-mail the state would “accommodate districts with rising enrollment” but that the increases in enrollment would be “more accurately measured after school begins.”

The requests for more funding come the same month Brownback chided school districts for not steering more money to the classroom.

“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,” Brownback said during a speech to educators in Wichita.

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

The governor said state law requires districts to spend two-thirds of funding on the classroom but that only a handful of districts do that. He said districts should consider privatizing “back-office operations,” such as technology and human resources, to direct more money to classrooms.

Gibson called Brownback’s comments misleading.

The statute Brownback was referring to states that it is a policy goal that districts spend at least 65 percent of their budgets on the classroom. It does not set a requirement or penalty.

G.A. Buie, executive director of the United School Administrators of Kansas, said in an e-mail that the governor’s “comments are being made as if school districts are not already putting every dollar possible into classroom instruction.”

Buie said the governor overlooks expenses that are necessary for learning to take place.

“I don’t believe the governor’s office understands what it takes to house, transport, feed, document, assess, counsel, supply, heat/cool and, yes, educate children every day. Almost every dollar spent in a school district directly or indirectly affects instruction,” he said.

A document from the Department of Education shows that Kansas school districts spent 61 percent of their operating budgets on instruction during the 2013-14 school year. The bulk of the rest went for items such as building maintenance, transportation, food and support services for students.

“Without transportation, there are thousands of students who won’t even make it to school. Next, schools are required to provide breakfast and lunch for students every day, and let’s not forget the specialized support services for students,” Buie said.

Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that it “is unfortunate that organizations with political agendas seek to create conflict between Governor Brownback and educators where one simply does not exist.”

“He understands many Superintendents strive to use their limited resources as efficiently as possible. This is a goal the Governor and Superintendents share,” Hawley continued. “He is hopeful he can work with them to craft a new school finance formula that will assist them in maximizing the impact of each Kansas tax dollar and ensuring every Kansas teacher has everything they need to help their students be successful.”

Tricky timing

There’s a tight window between when districts will find out whether they qualify for extra funding and when they have to approve their budgets for the new school year.

The finance council will meet on Aug. 24 to weigh applications for more money. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, a member of the council, pointed out in an e-mail to Brownback and Sullivan that state law says districts should turn their budgets in to the Department of Education and county clerks by Aug. 25.

He also said statute requires districts to publish their proposed budgets 10 days in advance of a public hearing before approving it.

“It will be impossible to do this if the State Finance Council meeting is not held until August 24,” Hensley said in the e-mail, requesting that the governor’s office move up the meeting.

Dale Dennis, the deputy commissioner of education who oversees school finance, said districts are getting around this requirement in two ways.

Some will publish budgets that assume they’ll receive no additional dollars from the state and then make changes if the money comes through before the local school board votes on it, he said.

“And some of them are going to wait until the Finance Council (meets), and they got permission from the county clerk to submit it late,” Dennis said. “The law says the 25th, but most counties are cooperative in a case like this.”

Wichita will hold a public hearing on its budget on Aug. 24.

Contributing: Suzanne Tobias of the Eagle

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.