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Archive for Friday, July 8, 2005

District will wait before spending school money

July 8, 2005

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A day after the Kansas Legislature ended its stalemate on school finance, local school officials say it's too early to start spending the money.

The $148.4 million funding increase would bring an additional $4.3 million to the Lawrence district. But Supt. Randy Weseman said the district can't discuss budget specifics until it has more information on how the money can be spent.

"We're not sitting here splitting up the money," he said. "We don't get it in one big check. It comes with restrictions. I don't know what those are going to be yet."

The Supreme Court will convene today to see if the Legislature's plan meets its order to adequately fund schools. Much hinges on the court's decision. Until then, Weseman said he continues to prepare for the event of school closures.

"Until this thing passes constitutional muster, I don't see how I completely forget about making contingency plans," he said, adding that the pressure is off a bit.

And before district officials consider how to spend additional funds, they must wait to have budget workshops with the State Department of Education.

But many expect the new funds, if they come, to be spent quickly. District administrators and school board members have already called teacher salaries a top priority.

The board will also have to prioritize more than $3 million in budget requests - for such items as new assessments, band uniforms and new positions - for the next school year.

There is some optimism.

"To be able to look at this budget and think 'what can I fund instead of what do I have to cut' - I can't even tell you how that feels," board member Linda Robinson said. "I've never had that feeling before."

The plan increases the amount of local property taxes districts can levy. It would allow the district to raise up to 27 percent of its general fund, which is about $48 million.

Currently, districts can raise up to 25 percent of the general fund.

For Lawrence, the change would mean the district could collect an additional $960,000 over the $12 million it collects now. Weseman said he hopes the court will steer more money from the plan to special education.

"I think that's a better, more equitable, distribution of money," he said, and it also benefits the Lawrence district.

Nearly 22 percent of about 10,000 Lawrence public school students receive special education services, a figure that is among the highest for districts statewide, said Bruce Passman, executive director of student services.

Children receiving special education can be gifted or can have disabilities.

And both populations are comparatively high in Lawrence, Passman said, because of residents' focus on education, the presence of the universities, and the reputation of the district offerings for students with disabilities.

Thursday's agreement may be a step forward, but it doesn't lay to rest the ongoing debate over how much it would take for the state to fully fund education.

Weseman said he doesn't have a magic number, but the figures provided by the 2001 Augenblick & Myers study commissioned by the Legislature and cited by the court - which said the state needed to increase annual school spending about $850 million - would allow the district to satisfy its needs.

"I'm not asking for the moon," he said. "I think that study is a reasonable approach to the amount of money that needs to be put into education in the state of Kansas."

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