State’s shortfall stretching schools

To hear some Kansans tell it, including a Wichitan on the Kansas State Board of Education, school districts can handle more funding cuts with relative ease because they’re sitting on piles of reserve cash.

Last week demonstrated a problem with that view: After being tardy with money to schools in November, the cash-strapped state delayed making $173 million in payments that were due to school districts Dec. 1 and 15.

The state made exceptions this month to help cover the payrolls of some districts, including Buhler, Haven and Wellington in south-central Kansas. But when the rest of the money comes, according to Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis, “depends on when we have the cash to do it” — a depressing statement about the state of the state’s finances. January and February funding may be late, too, he said.

And what about the districts? Are they clamoring for their state payouts while hoarding unspent millions? Hardly.

Superintendents point to the late payments as examples of why schools can’t afford to let reserves run dry. “When the state doesn’t pay its bills on time, that’s what that’s for,” Hutchinson superintendent David Flowers said last month.

State school board member Walt Chappell of Wichita and the Wichitabased Kansas Policy Institute contend that schools have more than enough in unencumbered cash balances to cover budget shortfalls. But as state board chairwoman Janet Waugh wrote in a letter last month reprimanding Chappell, such claims are “not supported by the evidence.”

Most of the reserve funds in districts are for specific purposes including self-funded insurance and textbook purchases. Districts also are required by law to bank dollars before starting construction on capital projects. District officials say it would be variously illegal and imprudent to use reserve dollars for payroll and other bills.

And “when you spend it (reserves), who is going to replace it?” Dennis recently noted to The Eagle editorial board.

The districts are caught in the state’s cash-flow problem, having seen state leaders cut their funding $301.5 million this year. The problem of how to spread insufficient dollars over nearly 300 school districts will become the Legislature’s next month, along with how to balance a 2011 budget.

Meanwhile, the Schools for Fair Funding coalition grew last week to 67 districts representing 165,500 students, possibly on its way to another lawsuit testing whether the state is living up to its constitutional obligation to fund public education.

“We don’t have a lot of ways to advocate for our kids. We can talk to our legislators until we are blue in the face. They do what they want to do,” Santa Fe Trail superintendent Steve Pegram told the Topeka Capital-Journal, of his district in Osage County.

School funds should not have to flow through Kansas’ courts. But they must flow.

Kansans can hope that cooler heads avoid another costly legal fight over funding of schools, and that a combination of sound leadership and economic rebound soon will pull Kansas school funding out of this ditch.