Politics & Government

Bill would let schools shift funds more freely

TOPEKA — School districts could shift money from special funds such as bilingual education, at-risk programs and building construction to cover routine operating expenses under a bill the state House approved Wednesday.

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

House Substitute for Senate Bill 111 breaks down most of the spending "silos" that limit how local school boards can spend special-purpose money. Lawmakers advanced it on a voice vote after an hour of debate.

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

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

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

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 rare step of carrying the bill on the floor himself, said it could free $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 prevent teacher layoffs.

Opponents say the bill does nothing to solve the underlying problem, which is that schools have taken and will take more substantial cuts in 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 passed the Senate unanimously in March as a measure to tweak the timing of some special-education funds. The House added the provisions to allow districts to shift funds.

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

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

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 as the speaker would like to think," Schodorf said.

Under an amendment Colloton added on the floor, 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, passed on a unanimous voice vote.

The idea behind it is to give lawmakers and budget writers the ability to compare 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.

But they worked with the education budget committee and came up with a less burdensome process, said Diane Gjerstad, the lobbyist for the Wichita school district. She said the district supports the final version.

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