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Archive for Sunday, April 29, 2001

School finance proposal leaves superintendents singing the blues

April 29, 2001

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— Even before legislators completed their work on a finance bill for elementary and secondary schools, superintendents knew it would be a tough year.

With nowhere close to as much as new money as they want coming from the Statehouse, the year is getting even tougher.

"Even if the governor's original finance recommendations are adopted, our district will need to cut around $280,000 just to fund movement in our teacher salary schedule," said Gary Jantz, assistant superintendent in Newton.

Jantz is not alone.

Declining enrollments, rising health care costs and the past winter's brutal natural gas prices have left districts with little room in their budgets for higher teacher salaries, new buses or textbooks, superintendents said.

The picture became a little clearer for some after the Senate, by a 23-17 vote early Saturday, approved Gov. Bill Graves' original recommendation for $67 million in new education spending in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Senators heavily amended a House bill and sent the package which raises the base state aid per pupil to $3,870 from $3,820 to a conference committee. The proposal would leave more than 130 districts with less state aid than in the current year.

Leading the list of losers on a percentage basis are West Graham-Morland, Nes Tre La Go and West Solomon Valley. All three are faced with declining enrollments and have decided to close their high schools at the end of the school year.

The vote on the finance package came after the Senate Education Committee conceded it could not muster the 21 of 40 votes needed in the chamber for a tax increase to significantly enhance education funding.

Educators said legislators have demonstrated little courage to reverse the tax cuts of the 1990s and increase spending to address school needs.

"More members of our Legislature need to step up to the plate, so to speak, and provide an equitable education for all kids in Kansas," said Gary Snawder, Girard superintendent.

Others see the lack of a significant spending increase as a missed opportunity to invest in the state's future.

"I know that there are many priorities in government," Don Wells, Mulvane's superintendent, said. "But if Kansas is to remain strong in the economic sense, good schools properly supported also makes sense."

During their debate, senators rejected attempts to amend the plan with House bills to raise local property taxes and fund a two-year, $29.4 million skills program for preschool through grade three. Known as "Tools for Tots," the plan failed 31-0. Superintendents said they would seek whatever increase their school boards could afford. But that means exacerbating the inequities between rich urban areas and rural districts.

In the end, they said, students pay.

"Our kids do not get the same opportunities, and therefore their lives are going to be very different," said Keith King of rural West Elk.

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