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Battle Over School Funding Looms Over Kansas Legislature

Sam Zeff

The Kansas Legislature gets back to work Monday, and when lawmakers arrive in Topeka they will be consumed by two things: budget deficits and education.

Where those two intersect may prove to be the hot spot of the legislative session.

A preview of the coming budget battle was clear at the final meeting of the K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission Monday at the statehouse.

The commission was supposed to figure out ways for Kansas school districts to save money that could be plowed back into the classroom.

The final report didn’t find any immediate savings and most members of the commission were disappointed with the work.

The members were appointed last year by both Republicans and Democrats, so it would have been nearly impossible for politics not to intrude.

As such, it previewed the likely legislative showdown on closing a $1 billion projected deficit over the next two fiscal years and whether money for education is in jeopardy.

'There are people who say that we can, but you can’t find three-quarters of a billion dollars without looking at the education section of our state budget," says State Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Republican from Fairway and one of the first casualties of the education battle.

She was kicked off the House Education Committee by Speaker Ray Merrick of Stilwell after she opposed most of her conservative colleagues' education policies last session. 

The efficiency commission meetings pitted Republican appointees against Democratic appointees.

Republicans wanted to drastically change the contract negotiation process with teachers, change the school funding formula and base future funding on educational outcomes. Democratic appointees to the commission fought all of those proposals, and that fight is likely to continue when the Legislature returns.

"It’s unfortunate that there’s still resistance within some aspects of the education system to doing that," says Dave Trabert, president of the conservative Kansas Policy Institute, referring  to the Republicans' proposals. The institute has an outsize influence on education issues in the Legislature.

Conservatives will make a mighty push when the Legislature convenes to change the per-pupil funding formula, which now focuses solely on how all Kansas children get a relatively equal education.

Trabert says equality is important but can’t be the only consideration.

"We have to focus on the outcomes. But we also have to take into account that districts, as any government agency should, should make effective use of taxpayer money. Better service, better price. That has to somehow be part of the formula," he says.

Progressives point to a series of court rulings directing Kansas to spend more on education.

A ruling just before New Year's Day by a three-judge Shawnee County District Court panel suggested the state might have to find at least $522 million more to make school funding constitutional.

But former state Senate Vice President John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, predicts Republicans might just drag their feet on school funding this session.

"I don’t expect the Legislature to respond until we have a final decision from the Supreme Court," Vratil says. "Now they may get into school finance as a way of filling the budget hole but I certainly hope not."

It’s that possibility that has school district superintendents on pins and needles.

Dr. Jim Hinson, superintendent of the Shawnee Mission District and a member of the efficiency commission, says he's worried that his current budget might be cut by lawmakers when they return.

"You know, I’m not 100 percent convinced that we’re going to be held harmless between now and our next fiscal year," he says.

Gov. Sam Brownback has a plan to close a $279 million budget hole in the current fiscal year that would not cut current school funding.

However, it’s the Legislature that will make the final call. Hence Hinson’s fear about this fiscal year and the next.

"It’s really a nightmare. You know, we’re in January. We started our budget process for ’16 a number of months ago. How do we really prepare for ’16? So we’re really in limbo right now," he says.

Fifty-two percent of the Kansas budget goes to K-through-12 education. Another 12 percent is spent on higher education.

With such a big pot of money, and a budget hole of almost a billion dollars to fill over the next two years, educators are convinced school finance will take a hit. If that happens, just how big it will be will start to come into focus next week.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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