In pre-State of the State remarks, Brownback sought common ground with school superintendents

TOPEKA – A few hours before his State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Sam Brownback addressed a gathering of school superintendents in an effort to find some kind of common ground, or at least mutual respect.

At the same time, though, he acknowledged that he has a different view than most of the education community of what has happened to school funding in the three years he’s been in office.

“I’ve been saying every year that I’ve been in office, we’ve put more money in K-12. And we have,” Brownback told the Council of Superintendents. “Your experience has been, ‘I’ve gotten less money,’ which is true.”

The main difference, he said, concerns how people count money put into KPERS – the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, which funds pensions for state, municipal and school district employees.

Basically, he said, the Legislature and his administration were putting more money into KPERS at the same time the federal government was phasing out the stimulus money it had been providing states to cushion them from the impact of the Great Recession.

“And you’re saying – and I’m quoting one of you – ‘Well, that doesn’t put diesel into the bus tank’,” Brownback said. “I understand.”

But he offered no apologies for that, saying it was important to shore up KPERS because of its massive unfunded liability.

“Ultimately, where state and local governments have really gotten hurt is they don’t take care of their pension systems. This is Detroit’s problem,” he said, referring to the Motor City, which recently declared bankruptcy. “You’ve gotta fund your pensions.”

He also offered no apologies for the fact that, as the federal government phased out the federal relief it had been getting from the federal government, he and the Legislature chose not to replace that money with state revenues, which had begun to recover by that point, and instead to pass a massive tax cut.

“Now, other places went different ways on this formula,” he told the superintendents. “I’m saying that basically, on the long term, we’ve got to get growth happening in Kansas again. And if we’re based on growth, we can fund things. If we’re based on raising taxes, or if we’re based on the same declining overall strength, we’re going to have great trouble doing this over a long period of time, but your transition is hard.”

Before the recession began in 2008, base state aid per pupil was $4,400. By the time Brownback took office, it had fallen to $3,937. In the first full year of the Brownback administration, it was lowered $3,780. It is currently set at $3,838.

But Brownback did offer an olive branch, of sorts, saying there needs to be more communication between the K-12 education community, and less litigation.

“My plea with you is, honestly, to have a lot more communication, and that it be a lot more specific,” he said. “Maybe start out pretty general, maybe getting to know each other’s names. … We just have not had enough communications in the system, I think, in particular between K-12 and the Legislature.”

The meeting was attended by what appeared to be most of the state’s 286 superintendents. They listened politely, and quietly, as Brownback spoke for about 20 minutes. During a brief question-and-answer session that followed, a few thanked the governor for his career and technical education initiative, but none tried to engage him directly on the school finance issue.

That question is now pending before the Kansas Supreme Court in a lawsuit that seeks to restore all of the money cut since the start of the recession — more than $500 million a year. If that should happen, the question then will become whether the Republican-dominated Legislature will comply with the order, or defy the Supreme Court.