Steve Rose — End the local cap on spending, Topeka, and let schools increase per-pupil spending

03/04/2014 5:11 PM

03/04/2014 5:14 PM

How is it that the Shawnee Mission School District can buy $20 million in high-tech equipment for all of its 27,000 students and teachers, when the district has had to eliminate 450 full-time positions over the past several years due to a chronic budget crunch?

And what do you tell a visitor from rural Kansas, perhaps a legislator, touring the Blue Valley School District, who sees high school edifices that look like the Taj Mahal? Is it any wonder if a western Kansas visitor would scratch his head and declare, “There are no money problems in Johnson County schools.”

The same goes for Olathe. New, state-of-the-art schools are popping up everywhere to handle student population hyper-growth. Yet, the state dictates that citizens of Olathe, like all Kansans, are not allowed to spend more per pupil for operating their schools than is allowed under a state-imposed budget lid.

The answer to these inconsistencies lies in the perverse laws that come down from the mountaintop in Topeka.

While legislators have held a tight rein on per-pupil spending, they have not intruded into local spending on capital improvements, either equipment purchases or building new schools.

We can glisten all we want. We just can’t teach the way we want.

It is all right for local school districts in Kansas to buy virtually all the equipment they need, through a local capital outlay budget. In our three major districts in Johnson County, that capital outlay budget can run between $10 million to $30 million a year. Taxpayers fund that separately through a special mill levy. The capital outlay budget can only be used for equipment or building maintenance. It cannot be used to pay teachers or other operating expenses.

Want a brand new school or two? Or how about refurbishing older schools?

The state lets local citizens decide, by allowing local districts to pass bond issues.

Voters in Johnson County have consistently proved they will spend what is necessary for top-flight schools.

Since the three major districts in Johnson County were all formed about 50 years ago, there have been a slew of bond issues proposed to voters.

In Shawnee Mission, there have been three bond issues. All passed.

Blue Valley has passed 11 of 12 bond issues.

Olathe has held 16 bond issues, and all but one passed.

These successful bond issues, which tend to pass handily, prove that public education is held in high esteem.

It also is a strong indicator that if local citizens were allowed to approve more local funding for operating expenses, such proposals would pass.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback campaigned for his first term on the platform that, if elected governor, he would push to eliminate the arbitrary cap on local spending for operations, with approval from local citizens.

Why not allow local control to determine the fate of our school operating budgets, similar to the freedom we have to determine our purchases of equipment or our ability to raise funds for school buildings?

This issue has gone into the deep freeze, so far, in Brownback’s campaign for re-election. When it comes to public education, what we hear about is all-day kindergarten. That would be a nice addition, but it pales alongside giving local districts more say in the education of their students.

If a district like Shawnee Mission approved the purchase of $20 million in computers, to mostly wild enthusiasm among its patrons, imagine what patrons would do to restore cuts in programs and return to smaller class sizes.

All-day kindergarten is nibbling around the edges. We want to hear more about local control from all who seek to be elected governor this November.

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