Politics & Government

Kansas postpones some aid to school districts

TOPEKA — Kansas has postponed a contribution to educators' pensions and again delayed half of its general state aid payments to public schools because of a cash crunch, state officials confirmed Friday.

Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis said the two items total about $124 million. It's the second consecutive month that the state has delayed part of its payments to its 289 school districts so that it can cover other bills.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's spokeswoman and a GOP leader in the Kansas House said the delays show why the state needs to get its finances in order, starting with legislation to trim spending from the current budget. The House plans to debate a budget-cutting bill next week, after moving to impose a rule that would make it more difficult for members to propose spending increases.

Officials said delays in payment shouldn't keep school districts from making their payrolls or paying other bills on time. Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said districts understand the delays are caused by the state's ongoing financial problems.

But Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, said the state's actions add to teachers' and administrators' worries about cuts in education funding as the budget debate progresses.

"School districts don't trust the state because we are not paying them on time, and they cannot depend on the state to get the payments to them," she said.

The state was supposed to provide $130 million in monthly general aid payments to school districts Tuesday but sent out only half that amount. Dennis said he expects the remaining $65 million to be paid "in the very near future."

The state's quarterly $59 million contribution to the pension plan for teachers and other educators was due Jan. 14 and still hasn't been paid, Dennis said. He did not know when it will be made.

"It's cash flow," Dennis said.

Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said the delays allowed the state to continue meeting its payroll, make bond payments and pay health care providers who serve the needy.

The state delayed the aid to schools and the pension contributions even though its financial picture appeared to brighten after better-than-expected tax revenue collections in January.

Kansas faces a projected $550 million shortfall between anticipated revenue and current spending commitments for the fiscal year that begins July 1. However, legislative researchers are expected to revise that figure in light of January's revenue.

The state often faces cash crunches early in the year because bills come due well before the state collects the bulk of its individual income tax revenue in the spring. Jones-Sontag said February is the worst month for cash flow because the state is starting to pay income tax refunds.

State officials don't expect a short delay in aid payments to cause significant problems for schools. Dennis said school districts received semiannual revenues in January from local property taxes, making the delay in part of February's state aid payments less of a problem.

"It's obviously not a good practice that we want to have, but it's not unexpected," Tallman said. "The school districts, I would say, just don't expect the money to be paid on time."

House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe, said the state's cash flow problems will be addressed in tackling the budget shortfall and, eventually, building up the state's cash reserves.

But he acknowledged, "Some of these things may continue to happen up to the first of July."

Meanwhile, legislators continue to wrestle with the budget gap. Brownback wants to trim spending from the current budget, allowing the savings to roll over into the next fiscal year to help reduce the shortfall.

The bill the House plans to debate Tuesday would trim $39 million worth of spending and includes a cut in school districts' base aid of $75 per student, dropping it by 1.9 percent to $3,937.

But before that debate, Speaker Mike O'Neal and other members of the chamber's GOP majority expect to push through a rules change prohibiting members from proposing amendments to add spending in one part of the budget unless they propose cuts elsewhere to offset the increase.

The House voted 74-34 on Friday to give first-round approval to rules that include the change. A final vote is expected Monday.

The House's top Democrat has been strongly critical of the proposal.