School budget claims are frustrating

Area school superintendents are frustrated. And with good reason. Some anti-tax groups and lawmakers keep arguing that districts have giant piles of money they could use to cover budget shortfalls.

Dave Trabert, president of the Wichita-based Kansas Policy Institute, even suggested that schools may be making certain budget cuts deliberately to anger parents.

"They had options," Trabert told KAKE, Channel 10. "They had money in the bank."

Area superintendents reject that allegation and say they don't appreciate the suggestion that they are laying off teachers and making other harmful cuts as part of some political game.

"It is difficult to hear that," Sue Givens, El Dorado superintendent, told The Eagle editorial board.

Derby superintendent Craig Wilford called the claim "a lie."

Trabert and others keep citing how school districts across the state had $700 million in unencumbered cash balances at the end of the past fiscal year. But as superintendents repeatedly have explained, that money isn't leftover cash that is just lying around. These are designated funds that have been budgeted for specific purposes. And if the funds were raided (which, in some cases, would require a constitutional amendment or federal law change), that money wouldn't be available to pay those planned expenses.

For example, $207 million of the fund balances was for special education. Districts need large special education balances at the end of June because the state doesn't make its allotment payment until Oct. 15 — assuming it's on time.

Districts also had $178 million in contingency reserves at the end of the past fiscal year. At the urging of state lawmakers (some of whom are now griping about the fund balances), districts set aside money in recent years as an emergency reserve and to help with cash flow. Thank goodness they did. Districts have tapped into that money to help cover the funding cuts this fiscal year and to help make payroll when state aid payments have been late.

Trabert and Kansas Policy Institute also keep citing Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis, who said that districts could use some fund balance money. What they don't mention is that Dennis thinks doing so without a way to replace that money would be a terrible idea.

"They only tell half the story," Dennis complained about KPI.

That's what many superintendents think, too.

A commentary in the Sunday Eagle signed by 12 area superintendents said that special interest groups are presenting official data in a biased and misleading way.

Andover superintendent Mark Evans said that the goal of such presentations is to plant a "seed of doubt" with the public. And it doesn't matter what superintendents say or how often they explain the facts, Evans said; the groups keep repeating the same misleading claims.

Which is frustrating, to say the least.