Early Sunday morning, amidst a tense, deadline-pushing game of politics, the Kansas Legislature extended its current session to pass a $522 million increase to K-12 schools over the next five years.
The bill was passed in the hopes of satisfying the Kansas Supreme Court, which ruled in October that the state’s current school finance formula did not adequately fund schools as required by the Kansas constitution.
For local lawmakers, Sen. John Doll (I-Garden City) and Rep. John Wheeler (R-Garden City), the consensus was similar: Under the circumstances, it was the best they could have done.
“I think we got as much money for the schools that would give us the best chance to satisfy the courts and be able to pass legislation,” Doll said. “It was a win in that aspect, and at the end of the day, that’s all we could do. I think if we would have asked for more money, we wouldn’t have got the (votes). And if we asked for less money, there was no way it would have gotten through the courts.”
Rep. Russ Jennings (R-Lakin) said most of the new funds will go into the base state aid for schools and should help pay for expenses like teacher compensation or special education. He said he believes the changes will be seen as positive.
“I believe it is enough to become constitutionally adequate, and therefore that is enough as a minimum threshold,” he said.
All three men voted for the bill, but said they were unhappy with the political games played by other groups or members. Doll said the weekend made him confident he made the correct decision when he chose to leave both political parties and become an Independent. Wheeler and Jennings said they did not agree with the choices made by Senate leadership, such as not giving senators a space to debate the bill and forcing a session extension that would limit the Legislature’s ability to override a veto by the governor.
Wheeler said the latter had never happened before, to his knowledge, and that he was worried about the precedent such an action would set. He said he has seen some bizarre, political gamesmanship in his time in the Legislature.
“Typically in business or personal affairs, one takes care of the most pressing issues first. The Legislature, it appears to me … prefers to take care of its most pressing issues last, forcing some decisions that, in my opinion, aren’t always the best thought out,” Wheeler said.
Regardless of politics, Wheeler and Doll said adequately funding schools was a priority and they were glad to have the bill passed. They said they hope that the Supreme Court will accept the legislation so the House and Senate can move on to other neglected areas of government, such as underfunded infrastructure.
For school administrators in southwest Kansas, the bill is largely seen as a victory, though one that is still in limbo. Many school districts are waiting to see what $522 million over five years looks like for their districts or whether the Supreme Court will be satisfied with the number in the first place.
Renee Scott, assistant superintendent of Garden City USD 457, said she was pleased the Legislature passed the bill, but was still waiting to see how it would affect the district. Some funding would be earmarked for specific programs, she said, and the specifics are still being communicated.
Daniel Slack, superintendent of Deerfield USD 216, said his district was still facing a lot of decisions.
“(There are) a lot of uncertainties,” he said. “We got to get this bill through first and then, as each year goes by, we’ll have to see what money we’ll actually realize and make district decisions upon what to do.”
To Rex Bruce, superintendent of Sublette USD 374, the funding is “a good start.” He said the bill was definitely an improvement on schools’ current situations and could help Kansas invest in its teachers.
“The goal is to get our teachers’ salaries up higher than the four- or five-state area so we can attract the best and keep our teachers,” Bruce said.
Bruce said Sublette has considered using any additional funds from the bill for teachers’ supplies or to update textbooks and technology in the classroom. Even though the schools weren’t falling behind, he said newer and better resources always help students. He said additional funding also could help pay for additional teachers so the schools could offer more upper level classes in several subjects.
Slack said additional funding could help Deerfield schools pay for positions they’ve been wanting to add, including a full-time K-12 counselor.
Scott said Garden City schools still had many variables to consider regarding funding, but the district wants to take care of its teachers.
Larry Lysell, superintendent of Healy and Palco school districts, said that the bill is good news for the vast majority of Kansas schools, but would hurt school districts with declining enrollment, like those in his districts.
For Healy, a district of 67 students with a trend of declining enrollment, Lysell said the losses could be as much as $24,000 to $35,000, or about 3 to 4 percent of the district’s budget.
The issue was complicated, he said, and would vary district to district. If the district continued to lose students and keep its same amount of teachers, it would have to rely on its cash balances to make up for declining funding.
Lysell said he understood why the bill was structured the way it was, even if it would hurt some smaller school districts.
“I understand what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to get more money to the schools that are gaining students, and they need (funding), too. But what some don’t always understand is when the small school loses students, they still provide a minimum curriculum or they can’t stay open … Most (small schools) are small by necessity and not necessarily choice. Our kids would have a dickens of a bus ride if we didn’t have a school here,” Lysell said.
Doll said the bill would be a great asset for some schools, but he felt bad about how it may affect schools with declining enrollment.
"It’s going to be painful for them. It’s based on how your enrollment has fluctuated … for the last couple years … There wasn’t a plan out there that could help them…” Doll said. “For the general help of public education, this was as good as we were going to get.”
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.