In efficiency fight, school officials counter that cuts have already left deep wounds

After taking criticism for the last two years over cuts that have been enacted for Kansas schools, Gov. Sam Brownback is now shifting the focus in the debate over education by calling on schools to be more efficient with the money they get.

But local school officials in Lawrence and Eudora say the cuts enacted since 2008 when the recession began have already forced them to lay off teachers, increase class sizes and cut or eliminate services for students and their families. They warn that any additional cuts will result in lower quality education and, ultimately, less efficiency.

“We feel like there are consequences for the cuts we’ve sustained, and certainly there will be consequences for further cuts,” said Kristin Magette, communications director for the Eudora school district.

Last month, Brownback formed a new School Efficiency Task Force to, “examine education spending and to develop guidelines on how to get more funding into classrooms where teachers teach and students learn.”

Then last week, he went further by openly soliciting anonymous reports through a new web portal about wasteful spending in public schools.

“While task force members are researching and analyzing where inefficiencies are occurring in our educational system, we also want to hear directly from Kansans who have their own ideas and suggestions on how to make our schools more efficient,” Brownback stated in a news release. “We hope to hear from a lot of Kansans who take a few minutes to go online and share their thoughts with us.”

To some, that statement revealed an underlying assumption on the governor’s part that schools are indeed wasting money and that the only thing needed is to ferret out the waste in order to make schools more efficient.

In response, Democrats in the Legislature have launched their own website seeking examples of how cuts to education in recent years have affected schools and families.

Ken Willard, chairman of the governor’s task force and a member of the Kansas State Board of Education, said the task force’s website wasn’t meant to be negative.

“If it sounded accusatory, that’s unfortunate because that certainly is not my position,” said Willard, a Hutchinson Republican. “But I think there probably are some things that could be done more efficiently, and if that’s the case we want to identify them in as positive a manner as possible to make recommendations.”

Lawrence superintendent Rick Doll said the cuts enacted in the last three years that resulted in eliminating teaching and administrative positions and closing some facilities have, in some ways, already made the district less efficient.

“Because we know that class size impacts student achievement,” Doll said. “We know that strong instructional leadership from an administrator impacts student achievement, so it’s incredibly hard.”

Between fiscal year 2008, the last full year before the recession, and 2012, per-pupil funding in Lawrence for general operating expenses was cut 11.6 percent, from $5,783 to $5,113.

Those figures represent the total of the district’s general fund budget, which is set by the state through a per-pupil formula, and its supplemental, or “local option,” budget.

In Eudora, the cuts were less severe, in part because Eudora opened a new building during that period and qualified for additional state aid called “new facilities weighting.”

But even with that, state records show, Eudora took a 3 percent cut during that time, from $5,941 per-pupil to $5,761.

Those cuts occurred across two administrations. In 2009, as the recession hit and revenues flowing to the state began to plummet, then-Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, ordered across-the-board cuts in state spending. Some of that was replaced, however, with federal money through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the federal stimulus act.

The biggest cut, however, came in 2011 as the federal stimulus program was being phased out. That year, the Kansas Legislature and newly elected Gov. Brownback, a Republican, opted not to replace the federal money with state funds, resulting in a $232 per-pupil cut in the base funding formula. That caused a ripple effect in every district’s local option budget, which is based on a percentage of the state-controlled base budget.

This year, Brownback and the Legislature restored some of that cut, raising base state aid by about $58 per-pupil.

To absorb those cuts, the Lawrence district eliminated many positions for administrators, teachers, counselors and support staff. It also closed Wakarusa Valley School and the East Heights Early Childhood Family Center, merging that center into New York and Kennedy Schools.

“Those were incredibly difficult in the community,” Superintendent Doll said.

In Eudora, the cuts resulted in increased fees for all students, the elimination of 10 teaching positions and nine nonteaching positions, as well as deep cutbacks in professional development for district staff.

Education advocates say districts throughout the state have made similar cuts, to one degree or another, and some have argued that those cuts are now showing up in the form of lower test scores.

That was one of the arguments made by plaintiffs in the school finance lawsuit, Gannon vs. Kansas, which is still pending in Shawnee County District Court.

In Lawrence, for example, the official district report card shows that in 2012, fewer middle and high school students meeting or exceeding the state standards in reading and math than in 2011. There were also sharp increases in the number of economically disadvantaged students who scored at the “academic warning” level in math, the lowest performance category on the assessments.

Similar trends were evident in the Eudora district report card where there were overall declines in reading and math proficiency across several grades, although eighth- and 11th-grade math scores did improve.

Spokeswoman Kristin Magette cautioned against reading too much into those trends in Eudora, a relatively small district where the performance of one or two students can cause a shift of more than a percentage point in some grades.

Still, Magette said, there is a strong belief that recent budget cuts have had an impact on student learning.

“I don’t think anybody who deals with the operations in our district, or certainly the classroom teachers, would argue that the cuts we have undergone have not had an effect on teaching and learning in our district,” she said.

Task force chairman Willard said he has not yet seen any comments that have come in through the web portal. He said the task force will meet again in November and December. He said he expects the group to approve a set of recommendations for the Legislature to consider when it convenes in January.