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School Efficiency Task Force releases report
Gov. Sam Brownback's School Efficiency Task Force has delivered its report, identifying 12 recommendations on how its members say Kansas schools can get more school funding "into classrooms" while spending less on administration and overhead costs.
Brownback's office identified the final 12 recommendations in a news release Monday.
When Brownback announced the task force in September, he noted: "only 15 of the 286 school districts in Kansas adhere to state law that requires at least 65% of funds provided by the state to school districts are to be spent in the classroom or for instruction."
In fact, the statute he cited does not make such a requirement, but merely establishes that as a policy goal, and many observers have criticized it for being vague because there is no clear definition of what constitutes "classroom" spending.
In reporting how money is spent for various purposes, school districts rely on the U.S. Census Bureau's definition for instructional costs, which includes the salaries of teachers and coaches, but not the cost of libraries, guidance counselors, speech pathologists and a number of other services.
The task force apparently recognized that as a problem, and one of the 12 recommendations calls for establishing a commonly accepted definition and reviewing the 65-percent standard.
The list also includes a proposal that has already gotten strong opposition from teachers unions: "Revise/narrow the Professional Negotiations Act to prevent it from hindering operational flexibility/resource assignment." That's the state law that spells out the issues that are subject to collective bargaining.
Another recommendation calls for establishing a statutory two-year budgeting cycle. The governor's news release did not explain how that would affect the distribution of school funds between instructional and non-instructional costs.
Other recommendations in the report include:
• Placing a "priority emphasis" on making sure the state makes timely payments to school districts in January and June, something the state failed to do a couple of times during extremely tight budget years.
• Conducting a study to re-evaluate state equalization aid for bond and interest payments. Brownback proposed eliminating that in future years (although the state would continue paying obligations it has already incurred) as part of his school finance reform package introduced last year, and folding the money into a new base per-pupil aid formula. His contention was that the money does not necessarily go to school districts that need it the most, but rather to qualifying districts where voters are most willing to approve new bond issues.
• To study implementing a state data management and accounting system that would integrate K-12 school systems and post-secondary institutions in order to streamline data reporting and administrative processes.
• Restructuring the allowed uses of capital outlay funds. That's money districts raise through a separate property tax mill levy to fund certain kinds of big-ticket purchases. The state is supposed to provide equalization aid for those funds as well in order to reduce wealth-based disparities among districts. But the state has not funded those subsidies in several years. Brownback has raised the same objection about that expense as bond and interest equalization aid. A three-judge panel in the school finance lawsuit said that without the equalization aid, the entire system of levying taxes for capital outlay funds is unconstitutional.
• Enacting legislation to eliminate, reduce and consolidate the cash reserve accounts and other separate fund accounts that districts currently can maintain and giving districts more flexibility in how those funds are spent. Conservatives in the legislature have long criticized districts for maintaining high cash reserves while simultaneously seeking increased funding for general operating budgets. School districts counter that they need to maintain reserves to manage cash flow and meet credit rating requirements.
• Authorizing a study of school district administration personnel structures and positions, and developing a state plan for district-level administrative reorganization and alignment:
• Place a limit on the duration of due process proceedings for special education hearings.
• And conducting an efficiency study/audit of the Kansas State Department of Education.
In addition, the committee recommended inserting a requirement — "if not already included" — that anyone seeking a license to be a school superintendent take a college-level course in finance, accounting and budget management.
The Kansas University School of Education requires completion of a course in "school resource management," which includes study in budget management, accounting and fiscal policy.