Politics & Government

State panel approves final recommendations on Kansas school funding

School buses line up outside Wichita East High School. (Jan. 5, 2015)
School buses line up outside Wichita East High School. (Jan. 5, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

A state panel tasked with identifying potential savings in school spending will recommend that school districts have annual financial audits. But it stopped short of recommending a proposal to limit state-mandated teacher negotiation rights.

The K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission approved the final draft of its recommendations Tuesday after a heated discussion that led it to back away from the more controversial proposals that had been considered.

The commission tabled a bill that would alter the professional negotiations act so that vacation time, overtime pay, grievance procedures and other items were no longer state-mandated aspects of teacher contract negotiations. The bill would have allowed districts and teacher unions to negotiate those items only if they mutually agreed to do so, leaving salary and wages as the only items districts would be required to negotiate.

It decided to recommend a bill requiring annual financial audits but after debate added language saying the Legislature must fund the audits.

Several members of the commission raised concerns about the bill’s original language, which would have left school districts paying the cost. Former Sen. John Vratil noted that the commission’s own report advised against unfunded state mandates. “It’s very hypocritical,” he said.

In the end, Vratil supported the revised bill and voted in favor of the report. “It’s not a report that I’m happy with. I think it was the lesser of several evils,” he said.

“There are certain aspects of this report that infringe upon local control. There are some aspects of this report that are just less efficient,” he said. “And it’s really ironic that the so-called efficiency commission is recommending things that are inefficient.”

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute and an outspoken advocate for conservative education reforms, said that if the state were going to pay for districts’ financial audits, it should require them to comply with those audits’ findings. He contended that many schools districts are operating inefficiently by choice and that the commission had missed an opportunity to push districts to improve their business practices.

“The whole purpose of this commission was to get more money into the classroom, find ways to reduce the cost of providing services … so that more money can be made available for the classroom,” Trabert said. “Unfortunately, many members of this commission fought that pretty much every step of the way.”

Trabert, who also was disappointed by the hesitancy to limit state mandates on teacher negotiations, plans to draft a minority report from the commission that will include teacher negotiations along with other policy changes.

The commission chose to await the results of talks among the Kansas Association of School Boards, the United School Administrators of Kansas and the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which are working toward a compromise proposal on teacher negotiations to submit to the Legislature.

Tom Krebs, spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said he appreciated the commission’s willingness to allow these talks to proceed.

The commission also recommended creating two more study commissions: one to study the Rose standards, a set of education goals that the Kansas Supreme Court adopted last year as the barometer by which to judge whether school funding is adequate, and a task force to meet every three years to establish best practice guidelines on spending for school districts.

Former Sen. Janis Lee, another member of the commission, said that in her 20 years in the Legislature, she had never heard of a commission recommending more commissions.

Sam Williams, the commission’s chairman and a Wichita mayoral candidate, said the final report is not as bold in some areas as he would have liked, but he defended it as the product of consensus.

“We never had the ability to force anybody to do anything. But if we planted some pretty significant seeds for change, I hope that they’re given the opportunity to grow,” he said.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, said that as a lawmaker, she has seen reports like this routinely ignored.

“This is well-intended. It doesn’t have a lot of teeth, and I think that we haven’t broken new ground,” she said after the hearing.

She said that although the final report is fairly moderate, she expects conservative ideas floated at the meetings, such as changes to contract negotiations and tapping districts’ reserve funds, to resurface during the legislative session.

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