Editorial: Funding process

School districts requesting state funds to meet “extraordinary” needs were forced to play a game without knowing the rules.

The number of students a public school district serves may not be the only criterion for distributing state funds to that district, but ignoring the increased demands that higher enrollment places on a school district makes little sense.

And yet, that is what Kansas legislators did earlier this year by dumping the state’s per-pupil funding system for K-12 public schools and switching to a block-grant system. The new system allocated funds based on what districts received last year without considering how enrollment in those districts increased or decreased.

The only recourse the new system offered to districts that found their state funding insufficient was to appeal to the State Finance Council, which is made up of legislative leaders and the governor. The legislation set aside a $12.3 million “extraordinary need fund” that could be distributed by the council but set no process or criteria for how that money would be allocated to districts that requested it.

That lack of criteria was apparent when the Finance Council met earlier this week to review $15 million in requests from 38 school districts. The council asked districts requesting funds to provide examples of efficiency measures they had implemented, but those examples didn’t seem to be part of the decision-making process. The council seemed more concerned about declines in assessed valuation than about increases in enrollment, approving 64 percent of the dollars requested to offset lower valuations but only 24 percent to deal with increased enrollment.

Members of the council were uncertain how large an enrollment increase was needed to justify increased funding. The governor’s budget director suggested that a 1 percent increase might represent an “extraordinary need,” but Senate President Susan Wagle said 2 percent seemed more reasonable to her. No consideration apparently was given to the different impact a percentage increase has on large and small districts. For instance, a 1 percent increase in the Olathe district represents, about 290 students while the same percentage in Garden City would be about 40 students. That apparently didn’t matter anyway; neither Olathe nor Garden City received any additional state funds.

In the end, the Finance Council decided to allocate only about half of the $12.3 million it had available. Some members of the panel said they liked the new system because it gave them more flexibility to address unique needs in individual districts. Another way to look at it would be that the system gives a small group of state officials, who may or may not have any educational expertise, the authority to arbitrarily micromanage school funding based on few, if any, set criteria.

Legislators said they didn’t like the state’s existing school funding formula, which was based on the number of students and their special needs, so they instituted the block grant system for two years while they work to create a new school finance system. The loose process followed to distribute money from the “extraordinary needs fund” doesn’t inspire much confidence in the impact that new finance system will have on Kansas schools.