Opinion Columns & Blogs

School districts should use reserves

It is clear from a legislative forum held Saturday in Wichita that serious budget decisions must be made in the next two weeks by our legislators.

Fortunately, existing cash reserves, cost controls and reduced spending can help balance the state budget to keep our schools strong and provide essential services for our most vulnerable disabled and senior citizens. If necessary, additional revenue can come by raising cigarette, alcohol and soft-drink taxes without increasing the regressive sales tax.

As one of the people elected to help maintain strong schools, I am certain that positive actions can be taken to support our teachers and students. The objectives of the elected officials I know are not to lay off any classroom teacher. We also want to keep a broad curriculum for our students, including vocational courses, art, music, physical education and driver's education.

Here are some facts provided by the Kansas State Department of Education and the Kansas Legislative Research Department:

* During the past 10 years, Kansas school district spending from all funding sources has jumped from $3 billion per year to $5.5 billion. This is a $2.5 billion-per-year increase to teach the same number of students.

* School districts started this fiscal year with $1.5 billion in carryover cash balances. Of that amount, $700 million was in operating accounts that have increased by 53 percent in just four years. For example, Wichita schools began the fiscal year with $95.7 million in operating cash reserves. The district estimated that $66 million remains for next year. There is no budget justification for eliminating any teacher's job.

* Spending more money on schools does not produce higher student achievement. During these same 10 years, National Assessment of Educational Progress, ACT and SAT test scores for Kansas students have remained flat. About 25 percent of our K-12 students still drop out before graduation. Wichita has 16 of the lowest-performing schools, yet has a higher-than-average cost per pupil.

* Only half of the people hired by school districts in Kansas are certified teachers. The rest are noninstructional or administrative staff. With the additional $1 billion the Legislature gave to school districts after the 2005 lawsuit, 6,000 people were hired. Only a third were teachers. In the past four years, noninstructional operating costs have gone up $373 million across Kansas.

School districts receive 52 percent of the state budget. Legislators must cut education funding to balance the budget. To offset these cuts, school districts can easily use a portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars in cash they already have in operating accounts. If more money is needed, they can cut noninstructional and administrative costs. No teachers should be laid off or courses eliminated.

Our legislators have a tough job ahead. All of them are trying hard to make sound budget decisions based on facts. We can help by getting informed and encouraging them to keep essential services without raising sales or property taxes.