Your Turn: Lawrence school district needs to build from classroom up, not from administration headquarters down

Mike O'Neal

I read with interest Rochelle Valverde’s article regarding Lawrence Public Schools’ budget process. I didn’t see any mention of how the district plans to address current law requiring building-based needs assessments prior to the local board approving the budget.

For some 20 years, K.S.A. 72-1163 has required local school districts to conduct an assessment of the educational needs of each attendance center in the district. A 33-question form is available to districts on the KSDE website. Addressing seven areas of need, Student Needs, Staff Needs, Curriculum Needs, Facility Needs, Parental Needs, High School Needs and Other Needs, the answers to those questions should inform the decision-making process in advance of budget approval. Sadly, it has been learned that most local boards aren’t familiar with this requirement and it shows up in lagging annual student performance outcomes.

The Kansas Accounting Handbook for Unified School Districts, published by the KSDE and also available on their website, states in unequivocal terms the importance of expenditures on INSTRUCTION:

“Although all other functions are important, this function acts as the most important part of the education program, the very foundation on which everything else is built. If this function fails to perform at the needed level, the whole educational program is doomed to failure regardless of how well the other functions perform.”

This strong statement by the Kansas State Department of Education makes a compelling case for building district budgets from the classroom up, rather than the administration building down. For too many years now the needs of students, teachers and the classroom have been neglected. Since 2005 state law has contained a public policy goal that 65% of the funds made available to school districts should be spent in the classroom or for instruction. That goal has never been achieved. The cumulative effect of that failure since 2005 has been that over $10 billion in funds that were appropriated by the legislature that could have and should have been spent for instruction were spent on other functions. Again, that failure is reflected in flat to declining student performance outcomes.

The past two legislative sessions K.S.A. 72-1163 has been amended to beef up the needs assessment requirement. Those assessments are now required to be published on the district’s website and information obtained from those needs assessments must be used by the board when preparing and approving the budget to ensure improvement in student academic performance. The board minutes must include verification that the needs assessments were provided to the board, the board evaluated the assessments and the minutes must reflect how the board used the assessments in formulating the budget.

The budget of the district is now required to allocate sufficient moneys in a manner reasonably calculated such that all students may achieve the goals set forth in state law.

Importantly, each year the board is required to review state assessment results and must document the following:

• The barriers that must be overcome to have all students achieve proficiency above Level 2 for grade level academic expectations on such assessments;

• Any budget actions, including but not limited to, recommendations on reallocation of resources that should be taken to address and remove such barriers; and

• The amount of time the board estimates it will take for all students to achieve proficiency above Level 2 for grade level academic expectations on the state assessments if such budget actions are implemented.

As you follow the progress of the Lawrence School District on its budget preparation, keep these statutory requirements in mind. The public has a right to know that the district is putting the needs of students and the classroom first. It’s sad to keep reading that when cuts are proposed, many affect the core function of education – instruction. Recall that the KSDE has warned that if a district fails to address this core function – instruction, “the whole educational program is doomed to failure”.

Mike O’Neal is a Lawrence resident and attorney who served 28 years in the Kansas House of Representatives, including time as chairman of the House Education Committee and two terms as Speaker of the House.


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