Cordley Elementary School used to have up to a dozen volunteers helping students with reading, writing and math, but now parents do clerical work to help make up for staff cuts.
The reductions were one effect of Kansas’ budget problems. With less state aid, Lawrence schools have been forced to cut nearly $8 million in spending over the past two years.
Things are not likely to get better. Kansas raised its sales tax this year to help make up for the loss of federal economic stimulus funds next year, but when the Legislature convenes and Gov.-elect Sam Brownback takes office Jan. 10, they’ll be looking at a $500 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that starts July 1. It’s a gap that could lead to more spending cuts across the state.
At Cordley, parents like Alee Phillips aren’t sure how long they’ll be making copies, laminating posters or filling out paperwork.
“I hope it’s not the new reality. Districts have to deal with the resources they are provided,” said Phillips, who has two children at the school. “I think it’s a scary time with education funding.”
Public schools in Kansas had a few years of relative prosperity before the Great Recession began, thanks to a lawsuit that forced legislators to increase education aid. But with aid to public schools consuming more than half of the state’s tax dollars, it has been a natural target for cuts in tough times.
School districts have responded by cutting more than 1,600 jobs in the past year, consolidating buildings, cutting programs and laying off teachers.
Lawrence schools have about 11,000 students and 1,600 employees, with a monthly payroll of $4.5 million.
The district trimmed its spending by laying off paraprofessionals who worked with special education students, reducing the number of days teachers work and increasing the student-teacher ratio by one student, a move that may seem small but saved more than $1 million in one year.
Many districts have reserve funds — something Republicans who opposed the sales tax increase noted. Brownback said in a recent interview that he hopes to give districts more flexibility to use that money to tide them over.
But Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll said that without clear direction from the state, districts are reluctant to tap reserves much more. Once the money set aside for emergencies is gone, it’s gone.
“If the Legislature would say that funding wouldn’t be cut, then we would be much more likely to dip into our contingency because (right now) we don’t know that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Doll said.
Kansas law sets schools’ base state aid at $4,400 per student, with extra money for at-risk students and those with limited English skills. But the base aid districts actually receive has fallen to $4,012, about where it was six years ago.
Schools would be getting even less were it not for the sales tax increase and federal stimulus. To avoid more cuts in education funding, the state will have to make up for the loss of $192 million in stimulus dollars during the next fiscal year, something legislators don’t think is likely.
Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Lindsborg Republican, said districts “need to be realistic” in their expectations.
“Just with all of the things that we are required by law to fund, there isn’t enough money to go around,” Emler said.
Some parents and school districts have already lost patience with the state.
Attorneys representing 63 districts and 32 students filed a lawsuit in November in Shawnee County District Court, demanding that the state restore funding for schools. The lawsuit claims the state is shirking its responsibility under the Kansas Constitution to provide an adequate education to all students.
The same attorneys were behind a lawsuit that led to the 2005 and 2006 Kansas Supreme Court rulings that forced legislators to boost spending on public schools. Their latest case is a response to the state going back on those increases.
Meanwhile, in Lawrence, there are fewer pencils and less paper for students after the district cut spending on supplies. Teachers complain of the stress of trying to do more with fewer resources.
“I worry about our novice teachers who are just starting,” said Valerie Johnson-Powell, president of the Lawrence Education Association and 29-year veteran in the district. “This stress is extremely hard on teachers’ health, including mine.“
Teachers also feel frustrated because the budget, not students, has become the focus of attention, she said.
“I love working with my students,“ said Johnson-Powell, a speech and language pathologist. ”That gets lost in all the rhetoric about the budget. We teach because it is in our blood.”
Parents say the most glaring change is the absence of support staff who once helped teachers reach students who were falling behind in math and reading. Phillips said she would love to return to Cordley’s classrooms to work directly with teachers and students.
“I’m not doing that now,” she said. “I’m in the lounge making photocopies.”