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Kansas School Districts Will Seek Extraordinary Needs Funding

Sam Zeff

Class has just started for most students, but it’s already a tough year for Kansas schools.

Many districts have been struggling to make ends meet, laying off staff or raising property taxes. But for a few dozen districts, the situation is worse.

So some districts are asking for help from the state’s Extraordinary Needs Fund.

When you think of Olathe public schools, the phrase extraordinary needs doesn’t jump to mind.

New buildings, lots of green space, beautiful offices.

But, the district says, money is tight.

"We’ve had an increase in transportation costs of over a million dollars. We have health insurance costs that continue to go up. So any piece of revenue will help accommodate those rising costs,"  says Olathe CFO John Hutchison. He broke the news to the school board last month that the district had a $2 million deficit and 80 people were going to lose their jobs.

Hutchison says this week Olathe will ask the state for an extra $450,000 on top of the $175 million in classroom funding it already gets from Topeka.

The reason, he says, is that the district is adding students.

In all, Olathe predicts it will serve an additional 200 to 300 students this year.

But block grant funding means its budget is frozen.

Now schools in Kansas that used to get additional money for additional students just have to make due.

But there is a pot of money lawmakers set aside for districts with extraordinary needs, like a big increase in enrollment.

David Smith is Chief of Staff in the Kansas City, Kansas School District and he says KCK will have 500 more students this year so its asking the state for an additional $2.7 million. "We’ve got to find more teachers, we have to pay for more supplies, books, desks, other materials, probably have to do some additional transportation. All of that costs."

KCK and Olathe are two of at least 30 school districts applying for just $12.3 million in extraordinary need funds.

The Legislature anticipated districts might need money beyond their block grants for two reasons; way more students or plummeting real estate values.

One of those districts with lower real estate values is Garden City School.

The western Kansas district has been hit hard by falling oil prices. Property that produces oil just isn’t worth as much as it used to be.

Twenty-one small districts, mostly in western and southern Kansas have asked for a total of $6.5 million in extraordinary relief.

The Garden City district has plenty of problems. One week into the new year it’s still short 30 teachers. Last year it had a $2.2 million deficit.

Garden City wants $600,000 to hold down local property taxes, according to spokesman Roy Cessna. "Really what we’re doing is requesting these funds to reduce the increase in the mill levy that the district is looking at doing."

But because this is Kansas, there’s politics in education.

All of these extraordinary needs applications will go to something called the State Finance Council. This is the group that makes major financial decisions for the state when the Legislature is out of session.

It’s chaired by Gov. Sam Brownback and includes house Speaker Ray Merrick and senate President Susan Wagle. In all, seven of the nine members are Republicans.

Many have been critical of the way school districts, especially KCK, spend money.

David Smith knows it will be a tough sell

"We are going to present our case and we’re going to present it in the belief that they’re going to do what’s right. If we didn’t believe that legislators weren’t going to do what’s right for kids, it would be hard to get out of bed in the morning," he says.

Later Monday we’ll know exactly how many Kansas districts will be vying for the extraordinary needs money.

The Finance Council meets on the 24th to decide.

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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