Kansas GOP touts school funding law; districts look to cut
Topeka Public school districts across Kansas are cutting programs, shedding jobs, ending the school year early and blaming it on the state's new school funding law, even as the conservatives who advocated it tout the changes as a generous step forward for education.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP legislators contend it provides the state's 286 districts stability through the 2016-17 school year and will boost total state aid — arguing they're getting far more money now than they did last school year. But with aid for the current school year trimmed by nearly $54 million, at least eight districts are ending spring classes early, and the Kansas Association of School Boards reports at least two dozen are considering spending cuts or property tax increases.
Local school officials also wonder how the Legislature's budget and tax debates will play out in the final weeks of the session. Legislative researchers estimate that lawmakers must close a $422 million budget deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1 — a problem arising after income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 that conservatives said would stimulate the economy.
"We're dealing so much right now with the unknowns," said Eric Deitcher, president of the school board for the Shawnee Heights district, which is ending its school year two days early and imposed $195,000 in cost-cutting measures.
The law took effect in April, jettisoning the state's previous per-student formula for distributing more than $4 billion for predictable "block grants" based on districts' current aid for each of the next two school years.
The sharp contrast between schools' belt-tightening and legislators' rosy outlooks was highlighted during a recent two-day hearing in Shawnee County District Court, where the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita, and Kansas City Kansas, districts are asking a three-judge panel to block the new law. They argue that it harms their programs and prevents the state from fulfilling a constitutional duty to provide a suitable education to every child.
Supporters of the new cuts (or, as they call it, "a reduction of the increase") brought funding back to what lawmakers thought it would be last spring — a point that Art Chalmers, a Wichita attorney representing the state, came back repeatedly in questioning witnesses.
"The revenue that you have to spend this year is a substantial increase from last year," Chalmers told Kansas City superintendent Cynthia Lane in court, referring to researchers' estimate that total state aid has increased by $176 million in the current school year, even with the new law's cuts.
Some of the aid was designed to force down local property tax levies for schools, and Chalmers noted those declined an average of 5 percent; though in Kansas City's case, it was 18 percent. But Lane said the new law doesn't adjust for an increasing number of students in a district or who have special needs, such as English as a Second Language.
And John Robb, an attorney for the districts suing the state, said: "They played bait and switch with the school district funding."
But Shawn Sullivan, the governor's budget director, said some districts are simply imposing changes in staffing or programs that administrations were already pursuing — or, in the case of those ending the school year early, cutting unused snow days.
"We become the scapegoat," Sullivan said.