In her classroom, Kansas City, Kan., kindergarten teacher Ruth DiSilvestro deliberately speaks slowly, exaggerating e-ver-y syl-la-ble of each word, and uses hand gestures for extra emphasis.
Pointing to her eyes, “look and see,” DiSilvestro told the room of 5-year-olds watching her every move at the front of the room.
It’s how she communicates with the 22 kindergarteners who fill the seats in her classroom at New Chelsea Elementary School. DiSilvestro, known to peers as a creative teacher, is no interpreter. Yet, more than two-thirds of the children in her room speak one of four or five different Southeast Asian dialects of Chin, Burmese, Korean, or Hmong, very little English or none at all.
They’re all part of the spike in enrollment the district has seen this year.
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And they are a big part of the reason the Kansas City, Kan., school district is appealing to state finance officials for a share of a $12 million fund set aside by legislators to help schools that demonstrate “extraordinary need” this year.
The district won’t be the only one submitting applications this week for help from the state’s Extraordinary Need Fund. The Kansas Department of Education anticipates about 40 of the state’s 292 public school districts, including Olathe, Bonner Springs, Piper and Tonganoxie, will seek relief through the fund either because of an unexpected enrollment spike or a drop in local revenue because of property tax devaluations.
School district leaders have been grappling with adjusting to funding cuts blamed in part on a tight state budget brought on by Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 income tax cuts, along with his new block-grant education finance model that gives schools a lump sum of money rather than doling out dollars to districts based on enrollment increases or what’s needed to educate each child.
The language barrier DiSilvestro works to bridge in her classroom is one many teachers throughout the district wrestle with.
Of the 22,000 district students, more than 9,000, or nearly 42 percent, are English language learners. And while the exact numbers are not in yet, school officials expect those numbers will climb this year.
Enrollment overall jumped by 506 students this school year, and based on the enrollment history of the district’s schools, officials said, most of the new students will struggle to speak English.
“Reaching English-language learners like those in DiSilvestro’s classroom takes more money to put extra help in the classroom…,” said Dominic Flora, principal at New Chelsea.
School district officials will seek an additional $2.7 million from the state’s Extraordinary Need Fund, “which does not cover the full cost to us of serving those additional students,” said David Smith, spokesman for the district.
“We have great kids who come to us with tremendous potential, but many of them come to us with language learning needs and other kinds of needs,” Smith said. “Our diversity is one of our strengths; we just need the resources to meet the diverse needs of our students. Every district in the state deserves additional resources to be able to serve their students well, and we are no different.”
The block grants are temporary and were intended to keep Kansas education funding steady until a new school finance formula is written.
“We need a new school funding formula,” said Steve Roberts, an Overland Park member of the Kansas State Board of Education.
Under the block-grant system, funds distributed to school districts are frozen for the next two years so that this year’s money is the same amount as districts received the year before. And presumably next year’s fund will be the same.
To handle unexpected district needs, the Kansas Legislature added the Extraordinary Need Fund.
“When you look at the number of districts applying to the fund, it underscores the dire funding situation these districts are faced with,” said Annie McKay, director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, which has closely followed the funding problems in the state and its public schools.
The message state leaders have sent to districts has been to move more of the block grant money into the classrooms and cut spending elsewhere, Smith said. But district leaders in Kansas City, Kan., and elsewhere around the state said they have already cut as close to the academic bone as they dare.
The Kansas City, Kan., district focused on maintaining current teacher-student ratios. To do so, it eliminated some chief administrative positions along with 30 assessment managers across the district. Some employees had to cut days from their work schedule, and the district also trimmed 10 percent from all school and department budgets along with other measures.
The Olathe School District, which has applied for extra funds to cover about 200 more students this year, cut Spanish programs from 35 of its elementary schools. Given the enrollment increase, the district is hoping for $500,000 to increase transportation and to hire more support staff, said John Hutchison, Olathe’s chief financial officer.
Lawrence schools are not seeking extraordinary need funds this year. “But if we have greater enrollment than anticipated, that may change,” said Julie Boyle, spokeswoman for the district. As it is, she said, the district cut spending by not filling vacancies including at least one in nursing services. “We tried to keep our cuts away from students,” she said.
Funding decision coming soon
The State Finance Council will decide how to distribute the additional aid. The council, led by the governor, includes legislative leaders from both parties.
Districts with decreased property valuations have filed requests, including about 22 mostly rural school districts that are seeking a total of about $6.5 million.
Applications related to increased enrollment will continue rolling in this week. The finance council is scheduled to meet Aug. 24 in Topeka, and districts expect to get a decision that day.
“Districts that don’t get the money they are asking for will have to adjust their mill levy upward or cut their budget to fit the money they’ve got,” said Dale Dennis, Kansas deputy commissioner of education finance.