Politics & Government

School districts have questions about governor’s proposed budget

For the next two years while the formula is rewritten, the state would provide Kansas’ 286 school districts with block grants that local school boards could spend as they choose.
For the next two years while the formula is rewritten, the state would provide Kansas’ 286 school districts with block grants that local school boards could spend as they choose. File photo

Kansas’ largest school district can’t figure out how Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposed budget will affect schools in Wichita, if the Legislature honors Brownback’s request to tear up and remake the way the state funds schools.

“There are more unknowns than knowns,” said Diane Gjerstad, USD 259’s director of government relations. “We do not know the details to understand what this means to the school district and the community.”

The Brownback budget proposal was released Friday at a briefing of the Senate Ways and Means and House Appropriations committees.

But despite the hourlong presentation by Budget Director Shawn Sullivan, details remained sketchy on how Brownback’s plan would affect the state’s K-12 classrooms.

The department’s education analyst was vacationing in Las Vegas on Friday and unavailable to provide details, Sullivan said.

In broad strokes, the governor wants to repeal the state’s current school funding formula and have the Legislature replace it with a new one.

For the next two years while the formula is rewritten, the state would provide Kansas’ 286 school districts with block grants that local school boards could spend as they choose.

It appeared districts that are now getting additional money for poor, at-risk and disabled students would continue to get some additional money, but without the current requirements that it actually be spent on programs to help those particular students succeed in school.

Another point of uncertainty was over how teacher pension expenses would be paid.

Budget documents showed that school districts statewide would have to pay $44.6 million in retirement plan contributions from their block grants, rather than having that money paid by the state.

In addition, the state would cut $63 million from its current expenditures for equalization of local property tax income, capital building funds and bond and interest payments.

Some of that money would apparently be restored in the block grants to districts, but it was unclear how much.

Lawmakers dueled over the wisdom of the plan.

The ranking minority member on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said it’s clearly a significant cut in school funding, potentially more than $100 million.

She said it appears the budget writers essentially froze school revenues at the current level while requiring local districts to pick up pension expenses.

In addition, she said it appeared part of the plan redefines some local property tax money as part of the state’s contribution to education.

The state is essentially telling school districts “we’re going to give you back your own money and make you pay for things you previously haven’t had to pay for,” she said.

Wichita Republicans on Ways and Means cheered the plan.

“The devil’s in the details but I like what I hear, I like what I see,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover and chairman of Ways and Means. “It’s long overdue, a rewrite of the formula.”

Masterson, Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita; and other Republicans cited state equalization payments to the Blue Valley School District in Johnson County as evidence the finance formula is broken.

“The obviously richest district in the state is now getting equalization money for their poverty,” Masterson said.

It wasn’t clear where that talking point originated but, according to the Department of Education, it’s not accurate.

The department calculates the wealth of school districts by the valuation of taxable property in the district, divided by the number of students it has to serve.

Blue Valley ranks 63rd on the department’s wealth list at $108,735 in valuation per student.

Burlington, home of the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant, ranks No. 1 at almost $480,000 per student. Galena, a former center of lead mining in southeast Kansas, has the lowest valuation at $20,251 per student.

That’s important because courts have repeatedly ruled that the state must not only guarantee adequate funding for schools, it also has to ensure that the distribution gives students from rich and poor districts a roughly equal chance at a good education.

Like Gjerstad, lobbyists for the state’s teachers’ union and school board association said they can’t figure out how the proposal would affect actual classrooms.

Mark Desetti of the Kansas National Education Association compared it to a shell game.

“It’s like following the ball under the three cups on a street in New York City,” Desetti said.

Whenever a new budget is released, “It’s always a little bit confusing at the beginning, but this time it’s just downright baffling in terms of where anything is going,” Desetti said.

Mark Tallman, of the Kansas Association of School Boards, also criticized the lack of details.

He said it has raised uncertainty for school districts about both the interim block grants and what could eventually emerge in a rewritten finance formula.

“It’s certainly legitimate to look at all the workings of the formula, but the governor’s plan basically seems to be get rid of the formula and hope you come up with a better one,” he said. “No districts will know what the new formula will actually be like.”

Contributing: Bryan Lowry of The Eagle and Brad Cooper of The Kansas City Star

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

Reaction to the budget proposal for schools

“I think the block grants are a unique approach. I don’t know enough about how it’s going to work yet...I think it’s a start. At this point I just don’t know how we end up.”

Sen. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain

“They lower spending and also make school districts responsible for the KPERS (pension) contributions. How’s that going to get money into the classroom?”

Duane Goossen, former Kansas budget director

“We do think we need a new formula and I would encourage the Legislature to move with extreme urgency and try to get a new formula together this year if possible.”

Dave Trabert, president, Kansas Policy Institute

“He (Gov. Sam Brownback) bragged about Kansas schools on the campaign. He talked about how good they were and he defended his funding and then after his election … said school funding was the cause of the budget problems. To me it sounds like a change of tune.”

Scott Rothschild, spokesman, Kansas Association of School Boards

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