Last week the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district provided another example of the attitude of the board towards those who have opinions that are not aligned with the policies of the district and public school spending advocates.
In this example it was Dave Trabert who appeared to speak to the board. Trabert is president of Kansas Policy Institute. His purpose was to present to the board some options the district has, based on a new state law, for managing its finances so that it could proceed without laying off teachers or eliminating programs.
Board president Connie Dietz made sure the speakers were aware there is a three minute time limit — now there is a timer on the display screens — and that the speakers would be excused after that time.
Trabert told the board that based on new state law, the Wichita school district has $16.4 million available for it to use without restriction. These are funds that the district has in accounts, but did not spend in previous years. “The district can, if it chooses, use this option to avoid teacher layoffs and other program cuts,” Trabert said.
Trabert recognized that the district needs some balances to help manage cash flow. He also mentioned the fact that school districts and school spending supporters don’t address: “The fact that these balances have increased significantly over the years, as some revenues were not spent, shows that the district has the ability to use this option if it chooses, and still have a lot of cash left over.”
He also told the board that many school districts in Kansas are able to operate with lower ratios of cash balances, relative to their operating expenses, than the Wichita district does.
Board member Lynn Rogers questioned Trabert, asking him how he felt about the federal government spending Social Security trust funds on things other than Social Security benefits. Trabert asked how that applied to the issue at hand.
Rogers said the district’s fund balances are a similar concept, and that if the district spends fund balances on something other than originally intended, it’s like the government misapplying Social Security trust funds. But the two concepts are distinguishable.
The idea behind the Social Security Trust Fund is that payroll taxes are collected from workers, and are then invested to earn interest over a long period of time in order to pay future benefits to retirees.
The district’s funds, with the possible exception of a fund like capital improvement or textbooks, are not intended as long-term investment vehicles. Rather, they are designed to meet short-term needs and to manage cash flow.
Despite the huge difference in the nature of the school funds and the Social Security Trust Fund, Rogers pressed Trabert to answer his question, trying to draw a comparison between the district’s health care fund and Social Security. But again, the comparison is not valid. The district’s self-insurance health care fund is for the anticipated costs of health care for the current year. It is not a long-term savings plan, as Social Security is intended to be.
We saw recently how the Wichita school district treated someone who made a proposal that lied outside the school spending orthodoxy. Here again we see similar treatment: First, the speaker is sternly reminded of the short time limit. This is, remember, at school board meetings where vast expanses of time are wasted on “feel-good” measures that do nothing to advance public policy, or education, for that matter.
After the speaker finishes, board members may then lecture the speaker, often in an attempt to divert attention away from the issues the speaker raised. At least in this meeting the board member gave the speaker a chance to respond. That may not happen again, as Rogers made nonsensical arguments in his attempt to back the speaker into a corner and avoid addressing the substance of the issue at hand.
The issue of the fund balances, while important, is not the most serious issue facing Wichita and Kansas schools. Most people would be surprised — and shocked — to learn that only 26 percent of Kansas students that take the ACT test are ready for college-level coursework in all four areas that ACT considers. (See Most Kansas students not ready for college.) While this result was slightly better than the national average, it means that three-fourths of Kansas high school graduates need to take one or more remedial college courses.
It is important that citizens understand the issue of the unspent fund balances. It’s also important that they are aware of the refusal of school districts and school spending advocates to deal forthrightly with the public on this issue. It provides insight into the nature of our public schools, and why reform is so difficult.
The written material that Trabert presented to the board may be found at Unencumbered Carryover Cash Balance Facts (According to the Kansas Dept. of Education, school district budget documents, Kansas Legislative Research Department and basic accounting principles). For more articles on the fund balances, click on Kansas school fund balances.