Senate leader suggests school districts should give back millions in aid since 1970s; Lawrence payment would be $35K for this year alone

In this file photo from March 13, 2017, Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, talks with reporters at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

? The Republican leader of the Kansas Senate is suggesting that several school districts in Kansas may have to return millions of dollars in transportation aid that, according to a recent audit, was distributed to them without legal authority.

Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, sent the letter Tuesday to the Kansas State Board of Education’s chairman, Jim Porter, of Fredonia.

In the letter, Denning cites a state law enacted in the 1990s that says, “In the event any school district is paid more than it is entitled to receive under any distribution made under this act or under any statute repealed by this act, the state board shall notify the school district of the amount of such overpayment, and such school district shall remit the same to the state board.”

The board, in turn, is supposed to remit the money back to the state treasury.

“I want to provide you and your fellow board members with the opportunity to find a legal basis for KSDE’s actions if one exists,” Denning wrote.

That letter came in the wake of a Legislative Post Audit report released in December that found the department had been overpaying some school districts for their transportation aid by using an old formula that was repealed in 1973.

The report said those districts had been overpaid by roughly $45 million over a five-year period, although some legislative leaders have said the actual total, dating back to the 1970s, may be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Lawrence school district was identified in the report as receiving an estimated $34,937 in extra transportation aid in the current school year alone.

Department of Education officials, however, have said they were instructed by legislative leaders at the time to continue using the old formula, which provided a minimum per-pupil amount of aid, for large, densely populated school districts that otherwise would have lost substantial amounts of money without those extra minimums.

Denning said his letter Tuesday was prompted, in part, by another letter that same day from Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who wrote to the education department and legislative leaders recommending they commission another, independent audit “to determine whether these unauthorized transportation expenditures were an isolated departure from the law or part of a more systematic problem.”

“This is turning into a legal issue, so we’re just going to have to resolve it from the attorney general’s standpoint,” Denning said in an interview.

His letter also came on the heels of an unsuccessful effort last week by House Speaker Ron Ryckman, of Olathe, and Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, to have Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis, the agency’s chief school finance official, suspended while an independent audit is conducted.

After a special meeting of the board Friday, nine of the 10 board members voted to rebuff that suggestion and voiced their full support for Dennis who, at age 80, has worked at the agency more than 50 years.

House Democratic Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, said in an interview that he believes both the effort to oust Dennis and Sen. Denning’s most recent letter are part of one coordinated strategy.

“This is about discrediting the data that is used to make school finance decisions, in a year when we have a school finance decision and we have an out-of-state expert telling us what to do,” Ward said.

He was referring to a decision by Republican leaders in December to hire consultants from Texas to conduct a new study on how much the state should be spending on public schools.

“Typically, in trials of these litigation matters, these school finance cases, the lead witness is our data department at the Department of Education, presenting data about what the costs are, what’s been spent and where the silos of money go and for what purpose,” Ward said.

Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, however, said he does not believe that’s what is happening.

“I don’t believe that to be true,” Longbine said in an interview. “There was an LPA audit. It showed an irregularity. It showed a discrepancy, and I think legislative leadership has asked the department to explain it.”

Meanwhile, Lawrence school board president Shannon Kimball said she thought it was unrealistic to expect school districts to pay back the money.

“I think as a matter of fundamental fairness, you can’t ask school districts to give that money back now,” she said in a phone interview. “Not to mention the fact that we are already in a situation where the state Supreme Court has said your funding is neither equitable nor adequate to meet the needs of school districts. And so, how does it help the Legislature’s case to now be saying we’re going to claw back money that we’ve paid you, in light of the fact that the court is saying you’re not paying them enough in the first place?”

Rep. Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, who chairs the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, also said he thought it was unrealistic to expect districts to pay back the money.

“The money’s been spent,” he said in an interview.

Campbell also noted that another section of the LPA report found that despite overpayments to some districts, overall state funding for transportation has not been meeting districts’ actual costs, based on a survey the auditors conducted of 16 Kansas school districts of varying sizes.

“We have an audit that shows we have been underspending,” he said. “In other words, we have not been covering the costs now.”