Politics & Government

Education official: No district gets more money from block grant

Dale Dennis, the Deputy Commissioner for the Kansas Department of Education, explains documents he presented on their request on Friday, May 8, 2015 in Topeka.
Dale Dennis, the Deputy Commissioner for the Kansas Department of Education, explains documents he presented on their request on Friday, May 8, 2015 in Topeka. Associated Press

TOPEKA — The state Education Department’s top finance official testified Friday that no school district in Kansas gets more operating money under Gov. Sam Brownback’s block grant funding system.

After mandatory payments to the state’s public employee retirement fund are factored out, every district that qualified for state equalization payments will get less from the block grants than under the previous school finance formula, Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis testified.

Statewide, “the difference is about $53 million (less),” he said.

Asked if any district would come out ahead, Dennis replied “The answer would be ‘no’ for anybody.”

The Wichita school district, the state’s largest, stands to lose about $7.7 million in equalization money for local option budget and capital outlay, according to a report Dennis provided at the request of the state’s special school-finance court.

With 11 percent of the state’s students, the Wichita district will take 14.4 percent of the statewide cuts in equalization aid.

Under the previous school finance formula, the state provided districts with a base amount of aid, plus “weightings” that gave additional money to districts with high populations of rural, poor, limited-English and other harder-to-teach students. Districts with low property values received equalization money from the state to make up for the lesser amounts they could raise from local property taxes.

Dennis’ statement was a continuation of his testimony in the school finance court. On Thursday, the court’s chief judge assigned him to prepare the report cutting out the districts’ retirement obligations and focusing on how much actual operating money the schools will get through block grants.

Several school districts are asking the three-judge panel to overturn the block grant system, which was requested by Brownback and passed by the Legislature as Senate Bill 7 earlier this year.

The governor’s plan is to provide block grants based on school district’s current funding for two years while the Legislature develops a new funding formula. The school district plaintiffs, including Wichita and Hutchinson, allege that SB 7 violates the state constitutional mandate that the Legislature provide adequate and equitable funding for schools.

The Brownback administration, his legislative supporters and the lawyer representing them in court have consistently asserted school districts will get more money overall under SB 7 than they did under the previous school finance formula.

As he initially testified Thursday, Dennis reiterated Friday that money for KPERS, the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, is automatically and electronically deducted from the block grant payments as soon as the school districts receive them.

“It hits the bank and bounces back the same day,” he said.

Art Chalmers, the lawyer representing the state, has said that the KPERS funding should count as a legitimate school expense because it eventually goes back to educators.

On Friday, Chalmers said the state stands by that, although the plaintiff districts disagree.

Dennis was the only witness the state called for the two-day hearing.

Superintendent testifies

The plaintiffs’ witnesses included Kansas City superintendent Cynthia Lane, who testified Thursday, and Hutchinson superintendent Shelly Kiblinger, who testified Friday.

Kiblinger said her district will have to make significant cuts next year and in future years because of SB 7.

Next year, the district will eliminate three elementary school teachers, three classroom coaches who help teachers with struggling kids, one high-school teacher, the district’s only middle-school librarian, a district office clerk and a groundskeeper/maintenance position.

The following year, because of the cumulative effect of the cuts, the district will eliminate a full “track” at one of its schools, shuttering kindergarten, first-, second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes. Between 250 and 500 children will wind up in larger classes or at a different school, she said.

Kiblinger, who did her doctoral thesis on the effect of such transitions, predicted that will lead to lower student achievement, higher truancy and more behavior problems.

The cuts “are going to have a profound impact,” she said.

Chalmers noted that the district’s student population has dropped, and asserted in cross-examining Kiblinger that combining classes or even closing schools is a natural “part of the progression ... of a school district over time.”

Kiblinger replied that the district’s student population has declined from 4,480 to 4,420.

“That’s not even one full student per class,” she said. “That’s not the kind of number that would bring about, under normal circumstances, a school consolidation.

“We’re reducing (the number of classes) because I need another $350,000 in my budget.”

Shawnee Mission’s counterpoint

In final arguments, a counterpoint on behalf of wealthier districts was offered by Tristan Duncan, a lawyer representing the Shawnee Mission School District.

Although the district was not a direct party in the lawsuit, it had filed an amicus brief arguing that richer districts are disadvantaged in funding by the weightings and equalization aid provided to poor districts.

The brief said the four plaintiff districts — Wichita, Kansas City, Hutchinson and Dodge City — get $3,200 to $4,600 more per pupil in general state aid than Shawnee Mission, because so many of their students qualify for extra funding.

Duncan urged the judges, if they do decide to grant relief in favor of the poorer districts on equalization funds, to also allow wealthier districts to raise and spend more local property tax money on their schools.

That didn’t appear to go over well with the lead judge on the panel, Franklin Theis.

He suggested that if Shawnee Mission wanted more state aid, Duncan could contact Lane — who was seated in the front row of the courtroom — and arrange to transfer low-income students from Kansas City to Shawnee Mission.

Duncan replied that Shawnee Mission does have some low-income students.

Theis replied: “You have a few, you get money for them. If you had more, you’d get more money.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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