Dysfunction in Topeka has hampered Kansas school districts from planning for next year and has already thrown districts’ summer programs into upheaval.
Kansas must enact a new school finance formula by June 30 or risk a court-ordered shutdown of the state’s school districts. Districts are preparing for that possibility as a standoff between Gov. Sam Brownback and lawmakers over tax policy stretches into June.
The Kansas House and Senate passed a bill Monday night that would add a net $488 million to state school funding over two years, but even if Brownback signs it the mystery remains how Kansas will pay for it.
The state faces a roughly $900 million budget shortfall for the next two years without including any new funding for schools, and lawmakers have struggled to come to a consensus on a tax and budget policy. Lawmakers passed a plan to raise $1.2 billion over two years through an increase to income tax rates, but Brownback announced shortly after its passage around midnight Monday that he would veto it.
Unless lawmakers can find enough votes to override the governor’s veto or persuade him to sign a compromise plan, funding for school districts will remain uncertain.
Kansas City, Kan., schools have pushed up their summer school program to conclude by the end of June in an effort to cushion the impact of a possible shutdown to high school students who need summer school to advance to the next grade, according to David Smith, the district’s spokesman.
Smith said the district is looking into ways to continue its federally funded summer meals program for students if a shutdown takes place. He said that while the food is paid for from federal dollars, the district would be unable to use its own school buildings to distribute it if a shutdown happens.
“For some of our kids the only two meals they get to have during the day is the food they have with us,” said Smith, noting that the program serves roughly 4,000 students.
The Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has instructed its local members to hold off on negotiating salary and benefits until the Legislature comes up with a way to pay for the court-ordered funding boost.
“All of this has to be coupled with a tax bill,” said Mark Desetti, the legislative director of the KNEA. He called Brownback “divorced from reality.”
Brownback called the tax bill “bad for Kansas and bad for the many Kansans who would have more of their hard-earned money taken from them.” He called on lawmakers to pass an alternative fix to the state’s finances.
But even if the Legislature does pass a budget fix before the end of the month, Kansans will have to wait for the Kansas Supreme Court to approve the school finance bill before they know whether schools will remain open.
Many education advocates say the proposed funding in the plan falls short of the court’s order for adequate funding, which could lead to a shutdown and require a special session.
Erin Little, spokeswoman for the Shawnee Mission school district, said that “at this time we do not know” if the standoff in Topeka will have an impact on the district’s summer programs, but confirmed it is affecting the ability of the district to negotiate new contracts with its teachers.
“The teacher negotiations are in process as we speak, but we are unable to discuss teacher compensation until a resolution is achieved by our state Legislature,” she said.
Linda Sieck, the president of the district’s teachers union, said when the union’s negotiators meet with district officials they just ignore the topic of money.
“We’re paralyzed,” Sieck said. “We can’t really move forward until those decisions are made.”
Sieck said in past years teachers have been able to finalize negotiations before the end of the school year, but the Legislature’s inaction could push that process into July.
“We meet again on June 13,” she said. “It would be incredible if the Legislature by some miracle wraps things up by then.”
And even if the Legislature and governor come to a consensus on taxes this week, it’ll likely take several weeks until the court decides whether the proposed funding bill meets the constitutional requirement for adequate funding.
“Until the court rules, we’re not going to know whether this bill makes it or not,” Desetti said. “It’s entirely possible this bill gets through the court for at least one year, but why would you agree to everything at such uncertain times?”
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said lawmakers should not think of June 30 as their deadline because districts won’t have certainty until the court rules.
“I don’t know how to express how late in the game it is,” she said. “It’s a very risky move to stay stuck where we are. And I hope we can get moving.”
School districts must submit their budgets to the Kansas Department of Education by Aug. 25, according to Dale Dennis, the state’s deputy education commissioner in charge of school finance.
During this time of year, the Department of Education helps guide districts through the budget process, but Dennis said that agency cannot conduct its workshops with school districts until the court rules.
“The court’s got to sign off on it before we provide them the software to compute their local budgets,” he said.
Smith said the uncertainty hurts the Kansas City, Kan., district’s ability to make hires during the time of year when school districts are trying to find the best candidates for open positions.
“It’s already getting late in the day in terms of hiring to get the best staff, so that one’s a big deal for us,” he said.
Smith sent an email to current district employees last month informing them they may want to get their summer paychecks for June, July and August as a lump sum in case of a possible shutdown.
“Many of us live paycheck to paycheck and if there’s a possibility that paycheck might not come you need to plan for that,” he said.
A lump sum payment is an option for certified employees, such as teachers and counselors, but hourly employees, such as cafeteria workers, would face a gap in pay if a shutdown happens, Smith said.
Sieck said it’s disappointing for teachers that it’s taking lawmakers so long to address issues they knew they’d be facing since the start of the session — a solution to the state’s budget woes and the creation of a new funding formula.
“It’s just so frustrating that people voted last fall to make changes in the Legislature and still we have this inactivity and it’s June,” she said.