Archive for Monday, February 2, 2004

Budgeting puts schools to test

Weseman’s criticism of state plan angers education lobbyists

February 2, 2004


The telephone rang -- again -- in Lawrence Supt. Randy Weseman's immaculate office.

It was another messy long-distance call from Topeka, where education lobbyists and political figures privately bristled at Weseman's public condemnation of a flaw in the education spending plan Gov. Kathleen Sebelius presented to the 2004 Legislature.

His apparent sin was pointing out two weeks ago that Sebelius' idea for tweaking special-education funding would cost the Lawrence district $1.8 million annually.

"This is not about us being against the governor's initiative," Weseman explained. "It's about us helping everybody understand how this impacts our district and other districts."

But voices on the other end of the line responded by counseling the superintendent to put his full support behind Sebelius' education initiative. He should rally folks in Lawrence to do the same, they said. And if there are elements of the plan harmful to Lawrence, he was told, work quietly behind the scenes for a fix.

To do otherwise, they added, would help Sebelius' rivals derail her goal of raising taxes enough to pump $300 million in state funding into Kansas public education over three years.

Weseman agreed more should be invested in public education, but called the special-ed plank irrational. It would force a budget "meltdown" in the Lawrence district, he said. If given a choice between Sebelius' plan and nothing, he'd take nothing.

His message struck a nerve in Topeka.

"I can't see that not creating some problem for the governor and those people trying to get behind at least the tax portion of this," said Mark Desetti, director of government relations for the Kansas National Education Assn.

Weseman declined to identify who put the heat on him, but interviews in Lawrence and Topeka indicate his detractors included people involved with KNEA, the Kansas State Board of Education -- and the governor's office.

Weseman said outside pressure wouldn't mute his advocacy for Lawrence children.

"It's not like somebody has told me to shut up and I'm going to do it," he said.

Biting back

Desetti said he hadn't spoken to Weseman about the budget flap, but he didn't doubt the superintendent was indirectly informed of KNEA's distress about his commentary.

"There were a lot of people concerned that it came out the chute really ... well, he really blasted the plan," the KNEA lobbyist said.

But Desetti said Weseman's analysis of the financial implications for Lawrence schools was accurate. He said it was true Sebelius' proposal to allocate special-education funding based on overall student enrollment, instead of the number of special-education teachers, would hurt the Lawrence district.

However, Desetti said, the superintendent's objections should have been registered in a respectable "tone" and through proper channels. By that, Desetti said he meant behind the scenes via the Lawrence legislative delegation or a representative education organization.

At least one member of the State Board of Education had a similar reaction.

And Reps. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, and Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said Weseman's critique of the special-education provision didn't play well with Sebelius' staff, either.

"A couple members in the governor's office were saying, 'Well, people don't need to be hitting the panic button here,'" Davis said.

Categories of spending in a typical school district's "budget at a glance," with statewide spending totals per item:¢ General instruction: Activities dealing directly with interaction between teachers and students, in a classroom or in other locations, such as homes or hospitals, or through interactive video, television, radio, telephone and correspondence. Aides or classroom assistants included. Statewide total: $2.281 billion.¢ Student and instructional support: Administrative and technical support, including health services and counseling. $363 million.¢ General administration: Board of education staff, superintendent, superintendent's staff, assistant superintendents and area directors. $121 million.¢ School administration (building): Principals, assistant principals and clerical staff. $211 million.¢ Operations and maintenance: For buildings, grounds and equipment. $410 million.¢ Capital improvements: Acquiring land; remodeling, renovating and constructing buildings. $206 million.¢ Debt service: Bond principle and interest payments. $286 million. ¢ Other costs: Includes fiscal services, purchasing, printing, publishing, warehousing, distribution, planning, research, development, evaluation, information services, staff recruitment and training. $477 million.TOTAL: $4.35 billion.TRANSFERS OUT: Some funds in each category are transferred to specific functions, including special education, transportation, bilingual education, adult education, capital outlay, vocational education, inservice education, driver training, textbook rental, food service, federal funds and technology education. Estimated transfers: $450 million. -- Source: Kansas State Department of Education

Nicole Corcoran, Sebelius' spokeswoman, said she hadn't heard any of her colleagues in the office bad-mouth Weseman. She said the governor welcomed direct input from education leaders.

"I would encourage open communication," Corcoran said. "Obviously, if someone has something that they aren't happy with or that they think needs to be looked at differently, I think the only way to get that solved is to actually go to the person that has the plan."

Sloan said the final school-finance legislation would probably end up far different from the bill proposed by Sebelius. The special-education funding idea will be dropped by the governor, he said, as it should.

But Davis said damage had been done, not only by Weseman's scorching oratory, but by other critics of Sebelius' plan.

"The criticism that the governor took, it maybe took a little wind out of the sail," Davis said.

Sloan said he wasn't convinced Weseman's observations inflicted lasting harm.

"What did Randy do wrong?" Sloan said. "He called attention to a problem that impacted not only Lawrence but other districts across the state. You can argue about his word choice or anything like that. But for me, it's immaterial. He's standing up for the Lawrence students and community."

Lawrence or bust

And that's precisely why members of the Lawrence school board don't believe Weseman should be apologetic.

"You can't keep your mouth shut if something is going to affect you so negatively," said Leni Salkind, the vice president.

Board member Linda Robinson said the Lawrence district had grappled for years with a school-finance system that favored smaller, rural districts. Insufficient funding from the state, combined with an enrollment decline in Lawrence schools, had forced the board to cut spending or raise fees by $7 million during the past three years, she said.

A state budget proposal calling for a $1.8 million reduction in funding to the district would be intolerable, she said.

"Our job is to make sure we stop the bleeding," Robinson said.

The Lawrence district no longer has the luxury of sticking with a one-for-all approach, said board member Cindy Yulich.

"There's the piece about the good of the whole," she said, "but at the end of the day we've got to do what is right for Lawrence."

Board President Austin Turney said he considered Sebelius' idea for changing special-education funding a "disaster" for Lawrence schools. Lobbyists and politicians should honor the right of school district leaders to speak out on issues such as this, he said.

"We have to draw the line when there is a particular disadvantage to Lawrence," Turney said.

Students leave Free State High School at the end of a school day.
Under a 1992 law, the amount of money a district receives from the
state depends on how many students enroll, and one issue for
Lawrence officials is trying to estimate how many children will
show up for fall classes. Lawrence's enrollment has declined by 300
students in three years, to 9,600. Two-thirds of Kansas' school
districts are losing students.

Students leave Free State High School at the end of a school day. Under a 1992 law, the amount of money a district receives from the state depends on how many students enroll, and one issue for Lawrence officials is trying to estimate how many children will show up for fall classes. Lawrence's enrollment has declined by 300 students in three years, to 9,600. Two-thirds of Kansas' school districts are losing students.

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