Advocates rally for school funding amid competing claims about cuts

Lawrence school board president Vanessa Sanburn, center, and her family were among the hundreds of people from across Kansas who marched to the Statehouse Monday to call for increased funding for K-12 education. The Lawrence district is receiving 10 percent less per-pupil this year than it did a year ago, according to budget documents.

? Hundreds of advocates for public schools, including many who had walked for three days from as far away as Johnson County, Emporia and Manhattan, converged on the Statehouse Monday to call for increased funding for K-12 education.

“It’s awesome,” said Amy Schmidt-Cowardin, a Lawrence resident who is active in the group Educate Lawrence and whose children attend Cordley Elementary School. “It’s wonderful to see so many people out supporting public education.”

Heidi Hawkinson-Penny, who teaches at Washburn Rural High School outside Topeka, took part in the last leg of the march.

“I’m a school teacher, and my children are students at public schools, and this is very important to us,” she said.

But inside the Statehouse, the marchers were given a cool reception from Republican leaders in the Legislature, who took to social media to argue their point that school funding is already at an all-time high in Kansas.

“A friendly reminder,” House Republicans posted on their Twitter account, “(Kansas education) funding is the highest it has ever been in the history of #Kansas.”

That’s true, looking only at the total amount of money going into public education for all functions, including special education, retirement fund contributions and aid for special budget funds such as bond and interest funds and capital outlay.

But because lawmakers converted school funding to a block grant system last year, combining several different kinds of aid into a single grant, exact comparisons to previous years are difficult to make.

According to the most recent official budget analysis, total funding for schools this year will top $4 billion, more than any other single year in the past.

But there were winners and losers in the shift to the block grant system, and the Lawrence school district is one of those that lost funding.

“No, that’s definitely not been our experience in Lawrence,” said Lawrence school board president Vanessa Sanburn in response to the GOP argument.

According to Lawrence’s own budget documents, total spending this year from its general fund and local option budget — the sources of day-to-day operating expenditures — will be about $58.1 million, which is $5.7 million, or 9 percent, less than the year before.

And because Lawrence’s enrollment grew over the year, per-pupil spending this year will be about 10 percent less than last year.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in February that parts of the block grant bill enacted last year are unconstitutional because it forces some districts to levy higher property taxes than other districts to achieve comparable levels of funding.

According to the Kansas State Department of Education, the Lawrence district now receives about $1.5 million less in aid for its local option budget than it would have received under the old formula. And it receives about $656,000 less in aid for its capital outlay budget.

The House and Senate budget committees will hold hearings this week on bills aimed at addressing the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The House bill, which will be debated Tuesday, would effectively restore funding for local option budget and capital outlay as it would have been under the old formula, which would cost the state about $37 million next year.

The Senate bill, which will be discussed Wednesday, would not add any more money but instead would reallocate the money already appropriated for next year to meet the court’s guidelines for equity.

Sanburn said it is unlikely that any officials from the Lawrence district will testify on either of those bills.