During a recent celebration to unveil a new bond-funded building in the Shawnee Mission School District, Deputy Superintendent Kenny Southwick was caught off guard by one teacher’s question: Should she request her summer paycheck now for fear there won’t be money in district coffers to pay her come July?
Southwick recalled that scenario during a meeting Tuesday morning with The Kansas City Star to talk about funding problems facing schools in Kansas.
“I couldn’t look her in the eye and tell her that she’ll be alright,” Southwick said. Teachers and school staff are nervous he said.
The Kansas Legislature and education leaders in the state have four months remaining to find a solution to what the Kansas Supreme Court has said is unconstitutional school funding.
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Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson said the two sides — legislators and educators — are “so polarized,” neither has been able to discuss the school funding problem “like rational adults.”
The state’s current 2015 block grant funding law was meant to temporarily replace the old per-pupil funding formula, and bring some stability to school funding until a new formula could be designed. But districts argued block grants shorted poorer districts millions of dollars.
Now state legislators, grappling with a $30 million deficit in the state budget, must find a way to constitutionally fund schools by the end of June or come July 1, there will be no mechanism to pay for K-12 education in Kansas.
And the closer schools get to that deadline, the more worried parents, teachers and school administrators become, Southwick said.
“Normally at this time we are finished with our budget for 2016-2017,” Hinson said. “Right now we don’t know how to budget for ’16, ’17. We have heard so many different variables about what might happen. We don’t know what will happen. And the stories that we are receiving are really all over the board.”
He said that since the state is hurting for money and faced with such a huge deficit, a likely solution would be taking money from the state’s wealthiest districts and giving it to the less wealthy districts.
If the Legislature sticks to its position of no increase in taxes, “then in order to meet the demands of the court, you have to take from some school districts to give to some other school districts,” Hinson said.
Gov. Sam Brownback last month called Kansas schools “the best in the nation,” and accused “an activist Kansas Supreme court,” of trying to shut them down.
The problems of school funding seem, Hinson said, to be getting worse, not better. He said having to shut down schools in Kansas would be an economic nightmare for the state, considering that school districts are among the largest employers in many of the state’s towns. Not to mention the construction jobs, transportation workers and other support systems that a shutdown would affect.
Then on Tuesday morning Hinson learned the state was also considering a proposal that would force school districts to void contracts in place for everything from food purchases to electrical consumption and maintenance.
Under the proposal, which was scheduled to be heard Tuesday in the House Education Budget Committee, school districts would be made to make future purchases through the state.
“We are already under contract for all of those services,” Hinson said. “Is the state really saying we are going to come in and void all of those contracts that school districts already have in place, starting July 1?”
It appears to be another level of state attempting control over school operations, Hinson said.
“I propose that we stop throwing sticks and stones and convene a meeting in Topeka as soon as possible, sit down and solve this issue,” he said.
If that doesn’t happen, he said, then the no-funding train that is speeding down the track, “is going to crash right into the school bus in its path.”