Continuing a debate on Kansas school funding on the KPTS television public affairs program Kansas Week, Kansas Policy Institute (formerly the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy) President Dave Trabert appeared tonight to present KPI’s findings about school funding. While school spending advocates have criticized these findings, there’s really good news for Kansas in the numbers.
Trabert said that despite the large amount of discussion about school funding in recent years, there is still much misunderstanding about the topic.
He said that KPI put out a report that showed that Kansas schools finished the last fiscal year with $1.5 billion in unencumbered cash. A portion of it is not available for general use, he said, but $699.2 million is. This is not only according to KPI’s analysis, Trabert said. Dale Dennis, Kansas Deputy Commissioner of Education, last week told Kansas State Education board members how schools could access these funds. Money flows in to the general or supplemental general fund, and is then disbursed to other special funds. Money in the special funds can be used only for the fund’s stated purpose, but by reducing contributions to these funds, schools can effectively access the money in these funds.
An an example, Trabert used a food service fund with a balance of $10 million. Then suppose a district believes it will need to spend $15 million on food service. Instead of stocking the fund with $15 million of new funding, add just $5 million (plus a little more). This gives the food service fund the ability to do its job, but it frees up perhaps $10 million to be used for other purposes.
Trabert said that Dennis agrees that this action is possible.
The $699.2 million balance in the operating category is a 53% increase over the past four years. “The only way that those balances grow is when more money goes in to them than is taken out,” Trabert said. This means that schools didn’t need all the revenue they received.
Host Tim Brown noted that there is a fierce debate over this, with schools saying this money isn’t available for spending in this way. Specifically, ending balances in funds are needed for expenses during a “carry over” period from July 1 to October 25. Trabert said yes, schools need something for this period, but no one knows how much. The fact that the balances are growing rapidly is strong evidence that the balances are higher than needed.
A second area of misunderstanding concerns how much the state is spending on schools. Using Kansas State Department of Education figures, Trabert showed that spending has been growing rapidly over the past years. Further, state spending is just part of local school districts’ total spending. For example, for the 2008-2009 school year, spending by the state of Kansas was $3,287.2 million, while Kansas school districts spent $5,666.7 million.
Often only the Kansas base state aid per pupil is focused on, but that number is just the starting point for school spending. While this number has been cut, total spending by schools fell by only 0.64% last year, Trabert said.
Brown said that these numbers are different from numbers seen in some other sources. Trabert replied that the numbers he is using are from the Kansas State Department of Education. Often school spending advocates use numbers that represent just a portion of the total school spending picture.
In conclusion, Trabert said that there is really some good news in these figures: “We don’t have to have higher taxes or cut services. We can have both if we figure out how to make better use of all the money we already have.”