What’s missing from the Dennis editorial on Kansas school funds

Today’s Wichita Eagle carries an editorial by Kansas School Board member David Dennis taking issue with claims that Kansas schools have money that can be spent.

At issue is the claim made by the Kansas Policy Institute and Kansas School Board member Walt Chappell that Kansas schools have hundreds of millions in funds that could be put to use to meet the current shortfall. See Districts Have Funds To Meet Projected $100 Million Shortfall for an explanation.

The editorial by Dennis explains some of the major funds and their purpose, and gives their balances on July 1.

But that’s not sufficient. To simply state that a fund has a balance of $x that is used for a certain purpose tells us nothing about whether that amount is the right amount.

The evidence we do have tells us that the balances in these funds are more than needed. That’s because they’ve been growing rapidly, by 53 percent over the last four years. The only way the fund balances can grow is if schools aren’t spending the money as fast as it’s going in the funds. Dennis didn’t mention this in his editorial.

So what Kansas schools could do, in many cases, is to spend down these funds. Kansas Policy Institute President Dave Trabert gave an example where a food service fund might have a balance of $10 million. Then suppose the 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.

It’s not only theses two — KPI and Chappell — that say spending down these funds is possible. Kansas Deputy Commissioner of Education Dale Dennis agrees.

An effect of doing this will be that fund balances will be smaller, requiring schools to be careful. That’s not as comfortable as operating with the cushion of large balances. But these are difficult times, and people across the state are taking extraordinary measures.

The existence of these funds raises a question: Is it necessary to have so many funds? Do they restrict schools from allocating resources efficiently, to where they are most needed?

Dennis’ editorial also contains a gross mischaracterization that I’m surprised the Eagle let slip by. It’s in this passage: “The base state aid per pupil for the 2009-10 school year, by statute, should be $4,492. This is the primary source of funding for the regular classroom. Due to state aid reductions, we are down to $4,012, an 11 percent reduction.”

As I wrote in my recent post Wichita schools on the funding decrease, base state aid per pupil is just a portion of total school spending: “It’s base state aid per pupil that was cut by 9.5%, or $421. But base state aid per pupil is only a portion of total school spending. In the case of the Wichita school district, it’s less than one-third of total funding and spending. To put a cut of $421 in context, consider the total spending by USD 259. It’s somewhere around $13,000 per pupil. $421 is 3.2% of that.”

(The numbers in my illustration were taken from a document supplied by the Wichita public school system, and are slightly different from the numbers Dennis uses. But they’re in the same neighborhood.)

So while the numbers Dennis uses are correct — as far as they go — it’s misleading to claim that a reduction in base state aid per pupil results in the same percentage decrease in total school spending. It’s dishonest for someone equipped with the knowledge and experience that Dennis has to make such a claim.

It’s also further evidence of just how difficult it is to get accurate information. Schools have so much money — even in this tough economic climate — that they go out of the way to hide just how much they have. Sometimes school spending advocates are simply uninformed, as was Rep. Melody McCray-Miller last year when she disputed the per-pupil spending of the Wichita public schools.


5 thoughts on “What’s missing from the Dennis editorial on Kansas school funds”

  1. I appreciate your article and would suggest that your point also shows how wrong the Kansas Supreme Court was in their decission. If the state and only they state funded schools and our children, then they might have some argument but that is not the case. I believe the state has made suitable provision and it is the community (district) that must deliver the balance of funding and other services as that community determines is appropriate not the courts.

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