The Wichita school district won’t know until at least October whether it will receive any extra dollars from the state to help its growing number of refugee students.
Wichita seeks nearly $1 million in aid to offer English language and emotional supports to students arriving from Somalia, Myanmar and other war-torn countries.
The State Finance Council, chaired by Gov. Sam Brownback, chose Monday to table Wichita’s request to allow the district to determine how many more refugee students it will have this year.
Some policymakers suggested that the federal government, which helps place these children in Wichita, ought to provide the dollars to educate them rather than the state.
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The council did approve about $6 million from the $12.3 million extraordinary need fund to help 34 other districts.
Wichita, Hutchinson, Bonner Spring and Olathe didn’t receive any of the additional aid they requested Monday. But Wichita officials are looking ahead to October, when the council meets again.
“They want to get further information and review this,” said Diane Gjerstad, the district’s government relations manager. “And I think what was really positive is that they had a lot of good discussion about this unique circumstance that truly is extraordinary.”
Wichita refugee students
The district had 132 refugee students enroll last year after they were brought to Wichita by the Episcopal Wichita Area Refugees Ministries and the International Rescue Committee, two non-profit groups working with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. The district expects that number to double this year.
Many of these students arrived with limited English skills and some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“This is a group that’s not familiar with Western civilization, ways and education,” said Brownback, who worked on refugee issues as a member of the U.S. Senate. “I think one of the other things we’re going to do is see if there are additional federal funds to help us out with the public school system.”
Brownback noted that federal funds usually go toward housing, clothing and feeding the children when they get to the United States, rather than educating them.
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, who sits on the council as the Senate’s budget chair, said the placement of refugee students in public schools was an unfair burden on Kansas taxpayers.
“One of the things that pisses me off is that the federal government isn’t paying for them,” Masterson said during a break in the meeting. He said the needs of refugee students might be better met by private institutions rather than public schools.
Goddard, Valley Center aid
Two other Sedgwick County districts did receive extraordinary aid on Monday – though significantly less than they had hoped for – based on enrollment increases.
The council approved $282,844 for Goddard schools out of nearly $698,000 requested by the district and $60,841 for Valley Center schools, compared with the $271,000 the district had requested.
Cory Gibson, the superintendent for Valley Center, said in an e-mail that school districts “were assured that the extraordinary fund would be there as a ‘safety net’ for growth, but this appears once again to be a failed promise by some lawmakers.”
Some districts, such as Olathe and Bonner Springs, didn’t get any money. The council set a threshold of a 2 percent increase in students in order to qualify for extraordinary need aid based on enrollment. That meant it gave out about $2 million for this purpose, while districts sought $8.2 million.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said districts should be able to accommodate increases in student population below this threshold without having to hire additional employees.
Brownback’s budget director, Shawn Sullivan, had proposed setting a 1 percent enrollment increase as the threshold. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, made a motion to approve this proposal, but it was voted down by every Republican on the committee, including Brownback.
“This is the first time trying to determine what is an extraordinary need,” Brownback said after the meeting about his vote against his budget director’s plan. “I think this is meritorious to say, is 1 percent student population growth an extraordinary need, or is it 2 percent?”
The old school finance formula would have automatically adjusted for increases in enrollment. The Legislature eliminated that formula in March at Brownback’s urging and replaced it with block grants based on last year’s enrollment totals.
The governor plans to meet with a small group of superintendents in Topeka on Tuesday to discuss what should be included in a new finance formula. He said he had a similar meeting with Wichita superintendent John Allison recently.
After the meeting Hensley charged that there was “a decided bias against urban school districts.” The Kansas City, Kan., school district, for example, requested more than $2 million because of growing enrollment but will receive less than $408,000 under the plan the council approved.
“I believe there is a perception among Republican legislators that those districts are wasting money,” Hensley said. “There is a political bias against those school districts.”
The council left more than $6 million in the fund untouched. That money could be given out later this school year or rolled into next year.
Brownback said this was a prudent move “because you don’t know what else is going to happen in the future.”
School aid based on enrollment growth
Here are districts that sought more state money because their enrollment grew, along with the amount they were given by the State Finance Council on Monday.
Source: State Finance Council