An extraordinary meeting

The State Finance Council shorted and denied school district requests for additional state funding.
The State Finance Council shorted and denied school district requests for additional state funding. AP

Kansans may not understand anymore than they did before Monday’s State Finance Council meeting what makes a school district worthy of extra dollars from a new “extraordinary needs fund.” But what was extraordinary was how some council members challenged districts about their stated needs, numbers, superintendent salaries and classroom spending before the council variously shorted and denied their requests.

This uncomfortable process is new for the state, as the fund was created by the block-grant funding law passed in March to replace the repealed 23-year-old school-finance formula.

Not surprisingly, the GOP state leaders who dominate the panel, chaired by Gov. Sam Brownback, seemed to be making up the rules for distributing the money as they went. They took property tax declines more seriously than growth in student numbers, with Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, arguing that “2 percent above last year’s enrollment can easily be accommodated in the classroom, I would think, and with current personnel.” (State budget director Shawn Sullivan had proposed a 1 percent increase threshold.)

That decision ended up favoring the petitioning rural districts over the urban ones. And though the council had $12.3 million available, it approved only about $6 million to help 34 districts.

Leaders at Wichita’s USD 259, one of four districts stiffed on Monday, seem optimistic about the invitation to try again in October. The council members wanted a more accurate number of the refugee students relocating to Wichita from Somalia, Myanmar and other war-torn countries.

Perhaps Brownback, who showed leadership on refugee issues as a U.S. senator, is right that federal funding can be found to help Wichita serve the young refugees. If so, that would be good news.

But it was pretty rich for Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover, to gripe that “the federal government isn’t paying for” the refugees’ schooling and expects Kansas taxpayers to do so, given how Topeka increasingly leans on local districts and property owners to cover the state obligation of K-12 education. Masterson’s suggestion that private institutions could better meet the children’s needs also showed a lack of understanding of the special instruction, time and support they require.

USD 259 asked for $980,000 to help educate the refugees this school year. That seems reasonable, especially because the district was charged $1.1 million by the state to help finance the new fund.

The school board also just approved a 2015-16 budget that anticipates $4 million less in expenditures than last year as it cuts programs, raises property taxes, freezes teacher pay and leaves 10 days of operating expenses in reserve – hardly indicative of a district awash in extra cash.

The governor and others seemed very proud of themselves for how the extraordinary needs fund can respond to property value declines. But the old formula accounted for per-pupil enrollment growth.

Even better, it did so without forcing superintendents to beg elected officials for more dollars.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman