School block grants inadequate

The state is making it harder to prepare students in Kansas public schools for career and life success.
The state is making it harder to prepare students in Kansas public schools for career and life success.

Stability. Certainty. Flexibility. More money. School districts were told these things would flow from the block-grant funding law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Sam Brownback last spring. But the law isn’t living up to the promises.

Many districts are now chopping their budgets, raising local property taxes, spending down balances or asking the state for more money, hoping to draw down from a new “extraordinary needs” fund created by the law.

The State Finance Council, which includes the governor and top legislative leaders, will meet Monday to reconcile $15 million in requests from 38 districts with an extraordinary needs fund totaling just $12.3 million. Some districts are facing drops in property tax revenue related to oil and gas production. Others are seeing spikes in enrollment. Some are experiencing both.

The word “extraordinary” especially fits in the case of Wichita’s USD 259, which seeks $980,000 because of an influx of hundreds of refugees from Burma, Somalia and the Congo region of Africa this school year and next.

So locking in funding for two years – though it’s more stable and certain for the state – isn’t meeting districts’ needs in a time of increasing enrollments and instruction, transportation, health and utility costs.

Who knew?

Superintendents, school boards, teachers and other education leaders did.

But they were not part of the secretive, hurried work of writing the block-grant funding bill in March before its limited vetting and rushed passage, including the disgraceful two hours during which the House waited as the state plane was sent to pick up a “yes” voter.

And somehow Brownback’s “simple” idea of lump-sum funding is supposed to carry districts through 2017? That’s when a to-be-written law supposedly will replace the 23-year-old school-finance system, a complex per-student formula that accounted for differences in demographics and property values across the state but was labeled “broken” by GOP leaders and repealed this year.

Meanwhile, Brownback continues to blame schools for their budget shortfalls, complain about their insufficient spending in the classroom and declare that their state funding “is going up substantially” – refusing to acknowledge that the increased state aid for teacher pensions, while welcome and necessary, cannot be used to pay operating costs.

USD 259, for example, has $5.6 million more in state aid this year, but only $329,000 of it is usable “in the classroom” and then mostly for special education. Factor in the district’s anticipated $14 million in cost increases, including 20 new teachers to cover enrollment growth, and the district expects to lower its contingency reserve to equal just six days of operating costs.

Is this any way to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state,” as the Kansas Constitution demands? Some of those who dwell under the Capitol dome think so.

But from where school board members, administrators, teachers and parents sit, the state is only making it harder to prepare students in Kansas public schools for career and life success.

Of course, the view of the state’s support for K-12 schools likely to matter most in the coming months is the one from the Kansas Supreme Court bench.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman