Local school officials: Current aid not enough

1/17/2013

Districts feel their already-strapped budgets can't afford more cuts.

Districts feel their already-strapped budgets can't afford more cuts.

BY RACHAEL GRAY

rgray@gctelegram.com

Less than a week after a Kansas court ruled Kansas must increase its spending on elementary and secondary education to comply with state law, Gov. Sam Brownback addressed the issue in his state-of-the state address, saying funding for Kansas schools should stay as is.

What the governor meant by that is the base aid per student pupil should stay at $3,838, which was set by legislators in May 2012 based on available state revenues.

Local school officials say that number won't be enough as school costs and utilities continue to increase. The funding will hinge on student population, or raising the taxpayers' burden to the school district, local officials say.

Kathleen Whitley, chief financial officer for Garden City USD 457, said that number for the current school year is an increase of $58 from the 2011-12 school year.

"But that's still far lower than what it was in 2008-09. It was at $4,433 for that school year," she said.

Whitley said the net decrease between 2008-09 and now is 13 percent.

"Our base aid per pupil over the last five years has gone down about 17 percent. Last year it went up, so the net decrease is 13 percent," she said.

Whitley said 85 percent of the district's expenditures are salary or salary-related.

"In any kind of increase in salary, we won't be able to do that unless we start looking to make cuts elsewhere," she said.

Whitley said the budget will be tight as the district is expected to have a 10 percent increase in utilities.

Brownback's proposal of using Kansas highway money for transportation concerns Whitley.

"I don't know what the Legislature will do on that," she said.

Whitley said she doesn't know if using the highway money is a good idea or not.

What she does know is that keeping the base aid per student pupil the same will strain school districts.

"I know it's going to be difficult to provide the services that we currently provide if the base aid per student pupil doesn't increase, without increasing the local option budget," she said.

Whitley said that unlike some school districts, USD 457 is lucky in that it can increase its local option budget. Some districts in the state are at their maximum allowable amount.

"We are around 25 percent, which is fairly low compared to other districts our size," she said.

Another concern Whitley has is the state aid equalization. Since not all districts can raise the same amount of property taxes, some of the poorer districts get state aid equalization. Garden City is one of those districts.

"The amount we are supposed to get from the state has slowly declined. What that translates into is higher property taxes," she said.

Jean Rush, superintendent at USD 363 Holcomb Schools, said enrollment in the district needs to stay steady in order for funding to stay steady.

So far, that doesn't seem to be an issue for Holcomb schools.

"I'd really be concerned for schools that are decreasing in enrollment. They're hurting. At bigger schools, they're increasing, so they'll get more money," Rush said.

How the governor's proposal will affect Holcomb is the student-to-teacher ratio.

"The quality of education based on adults per children, that can be significant," Rush said.

Utilities for Holcomb also are predicted to increase as another wing will be opened in Holcomb Elementary School.

Rush said further cuts to personnel and teachers is not an option for USD 363.

Since the 2008 economic downturn, Holcomb has had to do more with less.

"School districts across the state were cut. And we were cut to the point where we are bare bones. We're at that point. When (a teacher) is sick or gone, it really impacts us. I honestly cannot see how we could do with fewer staff members than we already have. I do not see that as an option," she said.

Rush said she hopes enrollment numbers stay steady. In the meantime, the district will look at other budget options, such as some state and federal grants.

She also was concerned about the governor's call Tuesday night to have all students reading by the third grade and not being promoted to fourth grade until they are proficient.

"I think we really need to look then at early childhood interventionists. The state has frozen the number that we can apply for, for at-risk. If the expectation is that we are to have them grade-level ready, we need to provide students with early intervention and education. I think that's important," she said.

In the now challenged Shawnee County District Court ruling, the judges barred lawmakers from making further cuts to per-pupil spending. But the ruling also acknowledged the state likely would appeal the court's findings.

The Shawnee County District Court judges said the spending cuts in recent legislative sessions caused an "unconstitutional eroding" of education funding. They ordered the state to reverse those declines effective with the 2014 budget, which begins July 1, and would raise the base aid per student to $4,492 as required by law. The current level is $3,783 and was set by legislators in May 2012 based on available state revenues.

Kansas allocated about $3 billion to spend on schools this fiscal year. To reach the court's threshold, the state would have to allocate an additional $440 million toward schools next fiscal year, even as it is currently facing a projected budget deficit of $267 million. That hole is a result of reduced revenue triggered by cuts in individual income taxes that took effect Jan. 1.

In Friday's ruling, the judges set the bar at $4,492 based on what legislators agreed to spend on schools in 2008, following the Montoy school finance court case. Those figures were based in part on studies that were presented at a trial more than a decade ago. The judges said, as the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in 2006, that funding should be determined not by what's available but by what it costs to educate students.

Districts don't receive just the base state aid per student but a greater amount based on a formula that calculates additional funding based on student demographics such as poverty and English language skills. As a result, districts receive an average of $6,000 to $10,000 per student.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said he hopes Gov. Brownback will focus on ensuring students receive a quality education, not on taking steps to punish the judges for their decision.

The governor's spokeswoman said Brownback was in meetings and hadn't yet reviewed the ruling.

Arthur Chalmers, a Wichita attorney hired to defend the state's position, told the three-judge panel in June 2012 that lawmakers did their best to mitigate the effects on schools of the recession that began in 2008. He argued that legislators had to weigh how much money was available for funding all state programs, placing school funding at the top of the list.

The state maintained that the fiscal reality of the recession and declining state revenues meant that all government budgets had to be cut. Legislators tried to blunt the cuts by using federal stimulus dollars and enacting a 1-cent sales tax increase in 2010. Chalmers also argued that districts had funds at their own disposal, such as those held in reserve accounts or funds that could be raised by increasing local property taxes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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