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Kansas School Districts Should Prepare For Another Year Of Block Grants

Stephen Koranda
Kansas Public Radio

A special joint interim legislative committee has been holding hearings on it, and many Kansas educators would say for the New Year all they want is a new school funding formula.

But the chairman of the state House Education Committee says he doesn't see a replacement for the current block grant funding scheme passing this legislative session. "But in reality, does anyone really think it'll be done by the end of session this year? I don't think so," says Rep. Ron Highland, a conservative Republican from Wamego.

Highland and other lawmakers from around Manhattan appeared before the Manhattan-Ogden School Board last month to answer questions about the upcoming session.

Credit Kansas Legislature
Rep. Ron Highland from Wamego is the chairman of the Kansas House Education Committee

In aYouTube video that made the rounds among Kansas educators and lawmakers, Highland took a beating from the board on block grants, the Brownback tax cuts and what board members say is a lack of respect in Topeka for public education.

Credit YouTube
A screen grab from a YouTube video of Manhattan area legislators appearing before the Manhattan-Ogden School Board. Rep. Ron Highland is third from the left.

"That was a fun evening," Highland said sarcastically in an interview last week. While Highland was clear in the Manhattan appearance that a new formula won't pass the Legislature he did say later that he didn't think it was impossible. "It's something I'd like to see this year."

But writing a new formula that takes into account student population, the increasing number of children who need special services and a spike in English language learners, is very complicated, Highland says. It's complicated further by 2016 elections where many lawmakers face competitive primaries. Some moderate Republicans and some Democrats say conservatives may try to push through a new formula just in case they lose seats after November. "Yes, there's some concern in that aspect," says Highland. "Some of us are already being targeted."

But educators say another year of block grants, essentially state aid frozen at last year's level, will be brutal. Aaron Estabrook is vice president of the Manhattan-Ogden School Board who was there for the work session. He says the district last year trimmed a million dollars from its budget and cut 12 teaching positions. He expects the price of insurance and utilities to continue to rise. "We exhausted all those one time cuts. We turned the heat down. We turned the A.C. down," Estabrook says. "We're as efficient and frugal as we can possibly be."

Kansas City Kansas Public Schools Chief of Staff David Smith agrees. He says costs are going up and KCK students are getting poorer while state aid remains frozen. But he understands the politics. "A new formula is a lot of work and it's complicated and it's an election year."

While most educators are hoping for a new formula this year that takes into account changing student populations and fluctuating property values most are preparing for a second year of block grants. "Frankly, I think school districts believed the block grants were here for two years," says Mark Tallman associate executive director of the Kansas School Boards Association.

Some of this will become clearer Tuesday when the Special Committee on K-12 Student Success issues its report after holding several hearings to collect information on everything from book prices to coaches salaries.

The Kansas Legislature starts its 2016 session on January 11.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.

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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