Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a series of stories featuring The Telegram’s top 10 news stories for 2014.
A bill passed in April that was supposed to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court ruling ordering state lawmakers to boost aid by $129 million to poor school districts actually resulted in funding cuts to some of the rural schools it was supposed to help.
That, and the bill’s elimination of tenure for teachers drew some local criticism. Meanwhile, with the state currently facing multi-million dollar revenue shortfalls, the future of school funding levels remains unknown. The plan was approved by the House 63-57 and the Senate 22-16.
The ongoing school finance issue, and its effects on area school districts, is The Telegram’s No. 4 news story of 2014.
Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, who opposed the bill, issued a press release after it passed that said, in part, “Only in the legislature could you add $104 million for state aid in school operations and $25 million for capital outlay state aid and end up reducing funding to some schools as a result of adjustments to a number of weighting factors in the formula. I am pleased we have addressed funding of schools within the state. However, I am disappointed that several school districts within the 122nd district ended up with a slight cut in their operating budgets.”
At the time, the Kansas Department of Education released information estimating how state aid for the school districts in Jennings’ district will be adjusted: USD 363 Holcomb, USD 200 Greeley County and USD 374 Sublette received cuts in state aid ranging from $4,300 to $11,600, while other districts in southwest Kansas received modest increases ranging from $4,100 to $36,670. USD 457 Garden City received an increase of close to $2 million.
Jennings said, at the time, that the mixed results arise from the weighting of the school funding formula, a complex series of calculations that determines how much money districts receive.
“It is because rather than just adding money to the system, there were adjustments made to the funding formula that resulted in reductions,” Jennings said. “And some of those adjustments that were made negatively impacted districts in our area beyond the amount of money they would have received as an increase.”
At the time, Jennings also said that in earlier proposals, even more of the smaller school districts would have lost funding and that those cuts would have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“It’s not as bad as it was to start with, but I just don’t understand why any school district would have to take a cut in funding, when we just went through a lawsuit that said schools were not adequately funded. It just defies logic,” he said, adding that much of the inequities could have been solved by pumping funds into the base state aid, rather than raising the local option budget.
The bill increased individual district’s allowable local option budgets (LOB) from 31 to 33 percent.
Because USD 457 only operates at a 25 percent LOB, USD 457 Superintendent Rick Atha, at the time, said that piece of the puzzle won’t have any effect on USD 457, and that it really only benefits districts that are operating at 31 percent.
“We, as a district, implemented a strategy of looking at the district’s expenditures and making cuts where we could along the way and balancing those cuts by trying to increase revenue by increasing the LOB minimally,” Atha said at the time. “And that is a strategy we will continue to follow.”
He said other aspects of the bill would benefit USD 457.
“It will increase revenue to the district because we have a very high number of at-risk students,” Atha said. “The district revenue will increase as a result of this bill becoming law.”
Sen. Larry Powell, R-Garden City, who voted in favor of the bill supported the tenure aspect of the bill, to get the bill passed.
“The conservatives in the House said they weren’t voting for the bill unless it was in there,” Powell said.
Rep. John Doll, R-Garden City, and Jennings both believe the tenure aspect of the bill was included to sway votes in favor of it. Doll opposed the bill, primarily because of the tenure aspect, saying it gives school boards the option of eliminating a more highly paid teacher, should budget constraints dictate.
Doll, at the time, said that after hearing from several current and former administrators, there was a mixed reaction to the elimination of tenure.
“Some of them love that the tenure is gone, but some of them see it as I see it — that you’ll get a school board that needs to make a budget and this teacher’s making too much money, and they’re going to be gone for no other reason but that they’re making too much money,” Doll said.
Jennings also opposed the tenure aspect of the bill, saying that legislators needed more time to study that issue.
“And perhaps that policy does need to be adjusted, but to do it at 3 o’clock in the morning with no hearings, no opportunities for discussion, I don’t think that’s a great way to make huge policy decision. So that was also a factor for me,” he said.
Atha agreed with both representatives on the subject of tenure.
“I wish they would have kept this bill clean, related to school finance. To add the piece of teacher tenure only muddied the issue, in my opinion. And also, in my opinion, when you discuss an issue, when the Legislature discusses an issue about teacher tenure, there should be an open debate,” Atha said, adding that he felt teachers, parents and administrators should have had the opportunity to discuss it with legislators beforehand.
Roni Knight is the southwest UniServ Kansas National Education Association (KNEA) board member, who represents southwest Kansas on the KNEA board, and is a first-grade teacher at Victor Ornelas Elementary. She and Dalana Billinger, kindergarten teacher at Gertrude Walker Elementary School and representative of the KNEA’s political action committee, KPAC, were in Topeka when the bill was passed to protest with other educators across the state.
The two shared a press release from the KNEA at the April 7 USD 457 Board of Education meeting, which said, in part, “Members showed passion and dedication throughout the weekend, fighting to keep their rights to advocate for their students’ needs with(out) retribution … Today’s teachers are teaching and students are learning because that is what we do — we teach kids, regardless of the attacks to our profession.”
The press release also said that the KNEA’s hope was that Gov. Sam Brownback would veto the bill, but the governor later signed the bill into law and his statement at the time the bill was passed reflected his support of it.
“The school finance bill passed by the Kansas Legislature today fully complies with, and indeed exceeds, the requirements of the recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling for funding schools and providing equity,” Brownback’s April 6 statement said.
According to a Dec. 12 press release from the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB), the state is facing a $279 million revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year and a projected $648 million revenue shortfall for the next fiscal year. That is deeper than the $480 million gap reported earlier because many of Brownback’s recently proposed fixes are one-time funding transfers.
According to the KASB, any reduction in tax revenue could impact education funding, since half of the state budget goes toward public schools.
According to a Nov. 11 press release from the KASB, when asked if the budget can be balanced without cutting public schools, Brownback’s budget director Shawn Sullivan didn’t answer the question directly. Sullivan said Brownback’s team would look for “efficiencies” throughout the budget, including public schools.
“The state of Kansas must continue to live within its means, just like families do,” he said.