This afternoon, Wichita school superintendent John Allison appeared before the South-central Kansas legislative delegation, explaining Kansas school finance as it applies to the Wichita school district, and offering justification for deciding to join the lawsuit demanding the state spend more on schools.
Referring to base state aid per pupil, which has been cut several times in the past year for a total of 9.5 percent (depending on who’s doing the arithmetic), Allison said that base aid is the funding with which the district funds regular education, and the represents funds with which the district has the greatest latitude. Other funds are restricted, and have fewer options.
He said that unlike many businesses, the school district hasn’t lost customers during the recession, and in fact, enrollment is high now. At the same time, production standards increase each year (due to the No Child Left Behind law), and doesn’t vary because of budgetary reasons.
Allison cited the rapid growth in math and reading scores on the Kansas assessment tests, and rising graduation rates. He said that efforts are paying dividends in achievement.
An important measure to the Wichita district, he said, is the weighting for special populations. These weightings provide additional funding over base state aid. Weighting factors include non-English speaking students, and students coming from poor families. Allison said that the wealthier districts in the eastern part of Kansas may contest these weightings, but he said there is a “marked difference” in educating in an urban situation versus a suburban situation, and this funding is important.
Allison said that making further progress “comes down to dollars.”
He said the district is pursuing efficiency measures in purchasing, including cooperation with other school districts. Storage of large quantities is sometimes a problem.
He asked that the legislature allow school districts to use a “request for proposal” procedure, instead of the current practice, where schools have to “craft a solution” before asking for bids. The selection of a vendor to install turf on Wichita school football fields last spring was an example where the RFP process was used, but found to be unlawful.
On the issue of fund balances, Allison said that almost all are restricted funds, mentioning the contingency fund as one that could be used, but the fund’s balance would not even meet district payroll for one month. The Kansas Policy Institute has produced research demonstrating that Kansas schools have $700 million in funds that could be used to make it through a tight fiscal situation, with Kansas Deputy Commissioner of Education Dale Dennis agreeing.
Regarding the board’s decision on Monday to join the attempt to reopen the Montoy case (the Kansas school funding lawsuit) in an effort to force the state to increase funding, Allison claimed the decision was not made easily. He said it is not a “sudden, magic solution” to the finance issue, and that legislators have to balance funding needs of the state, while keeping Kansas as a viable state for business growth. He mentioned examples of various units of government suing other government.
Representative Steve Huebert, a Republican from Valley Center asked questions about the wisdom of a lawsuit at this time. He said that school funding will be restored after getting people back to work and restoring our economy. Huebert asked about schools’ emphasis on cuts made to base funding from the state, which is about one-third of total school spending in the case of the Wichita district. Additionally, for the Wichita school system, with its large number of special needs students and students eligible for free and reduced weightings, about two-thirds of the total budget comes from these weightings to the base state aid, and many of these weights do not have restrictions. Talking about only the base funding, Huebert said, is very misleading.
Allison said he did not disagree, but when cuts have been made, they’ve been made to the base funding. Each time the district takes a reduction, fewer discretionary funds are available.
Allison said that there are some special education students said that cost “hundreds of thousands per year to provide what’s being required.”
Senator Susan Wagle, a Republican from east Wichita said that in order to fund Montoy it would require a very large tax increase, and asked if Allison was asking for a tax increase at a time when Kansas families and other Kansas state agencies have experienced larger cuts than schools have faced. Allison said that the question is not advocating a tax increase as much as asking what are the current revenue streams, and are “exemptions and other areas where they need to be in order to meet some of the other obligations of the state.”
Wagle said we need a “reasonable discussion about how you squeeze blood out of a turnip.” Schools are asking way too much, she said, and animosity is developing because of the decision to sue. Most people when they want funding come to the legislature, and legislators make balanced decisions and fund what they can. We cannot fund Montoy “without an extravagant tax increase,” she said.
Allison responded that the decision to sue has been made by a large number of elected officials, and “time will tell regarding animosity.” He said he hopes, from a superintendent’s perspective, that we find a way to bridge not only the current situation, but also to look at the long term.
Coverage from the Wichita Eagle’s Dion Lefler is at Legislators, Wichita superintendent clash over school funding.