Politics & Government

Kansas bill would give governor more control over school finance

The Kansas Senate Ways and Means Committee holds a hearing at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka last month.
The Kansas Senate Ways and Means Committee holds a hearing at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka last month. File photo

A bill that would transfer control of school finance from the Kansas Department of Education to the administration has sparked strong opposition from educators, who say it is an attack on public schools.

SB 311, set for a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, would give the governor more direct control over school finance, which is now overseen by the state Board of Education and the state’s commissioner of education.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, who chairs the committee, said he did not author the bill and was not sure who wrote it. It was introduced late last session as an anonymous committee bill. But he said the idea made sense and was worth a hearing.

Under current law, the Legislature and governor approve the K-12 budget and the Department of Education distributes the money to the state’s school districts. The bill would move those financial duties to the Department of Administration, which is overseen by the governor.

Masterson said that would allow the Department of Administration to handle the distribution of state checks to school districts. “They’re (administration) the entity that does it for the state in general,” he said.

He said he thought this change “simplifies and streamlines the process” and contended that would make it more accountable.

“You wouldn’t be able to play games then,” Masterson said. He didn’t go into detail about the type of games he wants to avoid.

Eileen Hawley, spokeswoman for Gov. Sam Brownback, tied the bill to the Legislature’s current search for efficiencies in state government.

“We are currently developing a plan to consolidate several back office functions such as property management, property and casual insurance and health benefits into the operations of the Department of Administration, which is responsible for providing the infrastructure to support government agencies,” Hawley said in an e-mail.

“One possible benefit of SB 311, through the move of the school finance division from KSDE to the Department of Administration, is the ability to better leverage and combine purchasing power with the State for the same back office functions.”

Opponents say it’s unconstitutional

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the committee, called the bill unconstitutional and “a power grab.”

Article Six of the Kansas Constitution gives the state board the power of “general supervision of public schools, educational institutions and all the educational interests of the state.”

The elected board and its appointed commissioner oversee the Department of Education and are run independently from Brownback’s administration.

“The people of Kansas have kind of carved out education for a different kind of governance,” said Mark Tallman, spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

He said it makes sense for the Department of Education, which answers to the state board, to oversee school funding because it’s so tied to everything else the agency does.

This system is working and doesn’t need to be fixed, he said. “There is just a widespread belief among educators that the state department (of education) exists to help them, to serve them. And they don’t want to lose that,” Tallman said.

He said keeping these duties independent from the governor’s office helps provide stability because “it doesn’t just change with political administrations” and that “there’s just no reason to risk any of that.”

Teachers union: Process politicized

Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, called the bill “an attack on the state Board of Education, who still stand up and advocate on public schools.”

He said moving the financial duties to the Department of Administration would politicize the process because it would be controlled by the governor’s political appointees and put districts’ funding at risk.

“Putting it under his control and taking it away from the people who are elected specifically to oversee education,” he said. “Why are we taking education away – maybe the next thing we’ll do is give the highway fund to the Department of Education, why don’t we do that? Because that makes as much sense.”

Masterson said the KNEA was stirring up controversy about a bill that would only change who sends the checks.

“There’s no question they’re overreacting,” he said.

Wichita and other Sedgwick County districts oppose the bill.

“What problems are we trying to solve?” said Diane Gjerstad, lobbyist for the Wichita school district. “What is the public policy purpose of moving this very cohesive, functional, efficient group out of the Department of Education, which has oversight by a constitutionally elected board, over to a division of administration?”

Douglas Maxwell, director of finance for the Goddard school district, said in testimony submitted for Thursday’s hearing that moving the finance team outside the Department of Education would create a divide between “those working on school finance issues at the state level and the day-to-day work taking place to support students in every Kansas school district.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3