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Archive for Sunday, January 9, 2005

School funding challenge puts focus on bottom line

January 9, 2005

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— They can't agree on how much more money to spend on public schools, but on at least one point, Kansas lawmakers see eye to eye. Any new money is going to come with strings attached.

As they prepare for their 2005 session, which opens Monday, legislators of all political philosophies are talking about making schools more efficient and getting more dollars into classrooms. That means any new funds could be linked to cutting some programs, reducing the number of administrators and support staff, pooling the purchase of supplies and even forcing consolidation of school districts and closing buildings.

The Supreme Court offered few specifics in its ruling last week but made clear that legislators aren't living up to their constitutional duty to provide a suitable education for more than 460,000 students. The court said more money was needed but left it to lawmakers to figure out how much to spend and how to spend it. The state now spends about $2.7 billion on public schools.

"It's not necessarily a road map, because it was there all along," said Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson. "It is a legislative function to go back and make the formula adequate and equitable."

The rub is finding data on school spending that legislators and educators agree upon. Numerous methods are used nationwide to calculate costs, and many legislators don't trust numbers from education experts.

For example, legislators commissioned a study in 2001 by Denver consultants Augenblick & Myers to determine the cost of a suitable education. The study estimated Kansas needed to increase spending by $850 million annually. Legislators balked, saying the numbers were inflated and biased.

Complying with the Supreme Court's April 12 deadline could prove difficult if legislators have to base changes on actual educational costs.

"It's troublesome, because it will probably take a good part of the session," House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said. "I don't know how fast we can move. The deadline adds a certain amount of discipline."

Mays and O'Neal want to revive an effort from last year to put into law specific operations that districts must fund first, such as reading, writing and math. Other items, such as counseling, nurses and librarians, would come from remaining state funds or local property taxes.

"There's some paranoia that there is some grand plan to reduce school funding. We're not limiting what schools can do. We're saying what the schools must do," Mays said.

Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, who has sought tax increases for education, agrees the Legislature must have more facts.

"The court is clearly requiring the Legislature to do a cost analysis," he said.

Superintendents, such as Robert Herbig of Meade, say teachers and administrators are good stewards of education money. That won't change, he said. Nor does he expect legislative attitudes to change.

"There must be an up-front commitment on the part of our legislators to do what is right because it is the right thing to do for kids and not a forced attempt to rectify a situation brought on by their own lack of action over the years," Herbig said.

And cutting administrators has the same effect as cutting top managers in a business, said Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

"Administrative costs are not just unimportant overhead," Tallman said.

Educators are frustrated, Tallman said. They've spent the 12 years since the current school finance law was enacted complying with academic standards that keep getting tougher, he said.

"Rather than taking pride that Kansas does so well with relatively low spending, we're continuously criticized for not spending our money very well," Tallman said.

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