A legislative audit of how school districts across the state are using money designated to benefit “at risk” students raises some serious questions.
Not only does it feed the underlying assumption of many state legislators that districts aren’t making the best use of their money, but it also raises some issues of basic fairness. Apparently, while some districts, including Lawrence, are raising local taxes to increase teacher salaries and fund other programs, some other districts simply are using “at risk” money to fill the gap.
The audit released last week looked at only 10 of the state’s 296 districts, but nonetheless uncovered what appear to be several serious problems. Deficiencies were noted in teacher development plans for at-risk programs and in the processes to deliver services and monitor student progress.
Perhaps the most serious issue, however, was the use of at-risk funds by some districts to increase teacher salaries. The auditors found that two central Kansas districts had used “a significant amount” of at-risk dollars for teacher raises — not adding teaching positions, but simply paying existing teachers more.
This doesn’t sit too well with Lawrence voters who somewhat grudgingly approved a local option budget last April that included a property tax increase to help fund salary increases for teachers and some district programs, including the WRAP program operated by Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.
Apparently, state law doesn’t strictly prohibit the use of at-risk funds for teacher salaries but, according to the auditors, it implies that funds should be spend on services beyond those offered to all students, services such as special tutoring. A program like WRAP, right? Well, no. Local school officials have said the state doesn’t allow at-risk funds to be used for WRAP.
So, while some districts are using at-risk funds for teacher raises, other districts aren’t using them even for programs that directly impact at-risk students like WRAP. If the current law only “implies” how this funding should be used, legislators, at the very least, need to clear up some confusion.
The state will allocate an estimated $368 million in at-risk funding this year, an amount that has increased dramatically since the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision mandating increased state spending on education. It’s no surprise that legislators will be taking a hard look at how that money is being used.
Given some of the problems reported in last week’s audit report, it seems that scrutiny may be long overdue.