Topeka Some top Republican legislators in Kansas are looking to cut aid to public schools significantly to avoid accounting moves proposed by GOP Gov. Sam Brownback to close a hole in the state budget by June 30.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, said she's drafting a bill to cut spending to close the projected $342 million shortfall in the state's budget. She said it would reduce aid to schools by between $90 million and $125 million, and she hopes to have it ready next week.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, suggested that legislators will pursue even larger cuts in education funding. He said public schools probably could "stomach" a $200 million reduction before the summer.
Their comments were in line with statements from Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, that Kansas should make immediate, structural changes in its budget to close the shortfall. Brownback has instead proposed liquidating a state investment fund and using the cash to back internal government borrowing to be paid back over seven years.
"Everything will be on the table," McGinn said of her proposal. "School funding just happens to be where a lot of our money is."
Talk of cutting education funding comes as Brownback, legislators and educators await a decision from the Kansas Supreme Court on whether the state is spending enough money on its public schools to provide an adequate education to every child. The court heard arguments in September in a lawsuit filed by four districts in 2010.
Also, other legislators, including some Republicans, are skeptical such cuts can pass.
"It's somewhat of an aggressive move to take while we're waiting for a Supreme Court decision on school finance," said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican.
The state has struggled to balance its budget since Republican legislators slashed income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging in what even some GOP voters now view as a failed attempt to stimulate the economy. Many legislators are ready to roll back part of those tax cuts but acknowledge they can't raise new revenues quickly enough to close a budget gap by June 30.
"While Governor Brownback's proposed budget makes cuts to education unnecessary, it is the Legislature's prerogative to propose such cuts," spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said in an emailed statement.
When legislators have trimmed education funding in the middle of past school years, the state's 286 local districts have reduced programs, cut schools days and left positions unfilled.
"I don't think there's any question that you'll see fewer teachers, and you're going to see larger class sizes," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.
But top Republicans argue that districts could tap contingency funds they've been putting away for emergencies. On Jan. 1, schools had $201 million of those funds, part of nearly $1.1 billion in cash reserves they carried into the new calendar year.
Districts have begun each school year with between $190 million and $217 million in contingency funds since 2010.
"It's a possible way for them to get through the cuts," McGinn said.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said legislators will review data about individual districts to determine whether cutting their aid is feasible.
But Hensley said school districts build up contingency funds because they're uncertain about the future and want to have a cushion for difficult economic times.
"That's not our money," he said.