Lawmakers on the State Finance Council meet Monday in Topeka to determine how much money nearly 40 public school districts in Kansas will get from the state's extraordinary needs fund.
Here are some questions you may have, answered by KCUR's education reporter Sam Zeff.
1. Kansas has an 'extraordinary needs' fund? What is that?
When the state passed a new block grant funding scheme for public schools last year, legislators did recognize that some districts might needs some additional funds. The block grants freeze spending for schools for the next two years, so the Legislature set aside a little bit of money — $12.3 million — that districts could apply for if they, for example, had an extraordinary increase in enrollment or a major decrease in property values which then affect how much revenue districts bring in.
2. OK, I get that. So, who's asked for these funds? And how much will they get?
Thirty-eight public school districts have applied for extraordinary needs funds. In total, their requests are about $15 million. Kansas City, Kansas, in fact, has made the biggest single request of any district: $2.1 million. Kansas City, Kansas, says its enrollment has gone up by more than 500 students, which necessitates a spike in funding. Likewise, Olathe has asked for about $450,000 in extra funding because of an enrollment spike.
Other metro districts to ask for money are: Piper and Bonner Springs in Wyandotte County and Spring Hill in southern Johnson County.
There is only $12.3 million total in the fund set aside by the Legislature, so these districts will probably not get all that they ask for.
3. Who is in charge of deciding how the money will be distributed?
That would be the State Finance Council, a group of top lawmakers chaired by Gov. Sam Brownback. The council's job is to make major financial decisions for the state when the Legislature is out of session. Seven of the nine council members are Republicans, many of them very conservative. Frankly, the two Democrats on the council will have very little say in how this money is distributed.
4. I've heard about a letter that the State Finance Council sent the school districts that had applied for extraordinary needs funding? What was that about?
This was a bit of surprise for the districts. Four of the members of the State Finance Council asked the districts for five examples of how they had become more efficient in their spending. They had a Friday deadline to submit a response to this letter.
This is, essentially, the state playing hardball with these districts, asking them basically to justify why they need this extra money at a time when state spending as already been frozen. The Republicans on the Finance Council are budget hawks. They have said numerous times that schools in Kansas are inefficient. The fact that they would issue this letter and demand a list of efficiencies is not something the block-grant legislation anticipated. So, districts were taken aback by it.
5. What did the districts say in response to this letter?
Not all have officially responded yet but the ones that have have seemed to defend their need for more money. For instance, Kansas City, Kansas, officials — again making the biggest request for extraordinary needs funding — have pointed out that they have cut more than $50 million from their budget since 2010. Superintendent Cynthia Lane says these cuts go "far beyond efficiency".
There is a real sense in Kansas City, Kansas, and beyond that spending has already been cut to the bone. The superintendent in Manhattan-Ogden schools, which has also seen a rise in enrollment, has also said that his district has already cut into its cash reserves. So, you get a feeling these districts feel like they have nowhere else to go but the extraordinary needs fund.