No truce in Kansas education battle as block grants plan keeps many districts on edge

Kansas lawmakers and educators looking for a truce in the state’s education funding wars will have to keep searching.

A new law replacing the state’s funding formula with two years of block grants found no peace.

At its best, school superintendents said, the bill signed Wednesday by Gov. Sam Brownback would stretch a bridge over Kansas’ financial abyss while lawmakers work with educators on a new funding formula.

But the frozen funding levels in the block grants, many said, only frustrate the efforts of school districts that had been fighting in courtrooms and Topeka for more money long before the state’s revenue tanked.

And the fact that several districts, including Kansas City, Kan., on Thursday filed a new lawsuit challenging the block grants reminded everyone that the judges presiding over a long-simmering school finance lawsuit have threatened to step in and potentially set off a constitutional showdown with lawmakers.

“How are we supposed to plan?” said Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson, who had welcomed the block grants as a shot at some temporary stability. “Everything could change dramatically over the next several weeks or months.”

The problems are many, said Cynthia Lane, superintendent of the Kansas City, Kan., school district.

Freezing funding for two years ignores the specific and changing needs of each school district to educate diverse student populations.

Her district has been growing by 200 to 800 students a year, with a high percentage of them needing special education such as intense English language learning.

The frozen funding also cripples efforts to provide more early childhood education, which is increasingly seen as essential to get more children to read at grade level by the third grade.

“This is not a (school funding) formula problem,” Lane said. “This is a revenue problem. This is about limiting the money we’re investing in K-12 education.

“It is disappointing and sad to say we’ve gotten to the point where people think public schools don’t add to our economy.”

The Kansas City, Kan., district is looking at $2.1 million less in revenue under the block grants this school year that ends July 1, with greater impact likely in the next two years as the district’s needs grow, she said.

It might mean larger class sizes, she said. It will strain the district’s ability to address students with high needs or those who need gifted education.

Blue Valley Superintendent Tom Trigg, on the other hand, sees the block grants as an agreeable stopgap as the state transitions to a new funding formula.

The reality is that the state is beset with a $400 million to $500 million shortfall, he said.

“Obviously we’d like to have additional revenue,” he said. “But realistically that’s not going to happen.”

The block grants would remove the threat of Senate Bill 71, which proposes steeper cuts to specific state funding that equalizes the revenue to districts with lower assessed property values.

Blue Valley would draw from its reserves to cover some $900,000 in reduced revenue for the current school year, but it has flexibility in its local option budget to boost its mill levy to recover most of the reduction in the next two years, Trigg said.

He said he felt assured that school district leaders will play a strong role in crafting a new funding formula, and the block grants open a space for that work.

For now, Shawnee Mission is budgeting according to the block grants law and its flat funding level, Hinson said.

The district has fund balances in its local option budget to offset the reductions it would see in the current school year, and then wouldn’t be in danger of new state cuts in the coming two years. The district is projecting its enrollment will grow, so that will add some strain to the budget, he said.

“But what is the alternative?” Hinson said.

If a court ruling were to intercede on the block grants, the potential cuts in funding in other proposals in Topeka might mean letting teachers and staff go, he said.

Given such a choice, Hinson said, most people would prefer flat wages “if it did not reduce your benefits and did not eliminate your job.”

Bonner Springs Superintendent Dan Brungardt, who sees many potential hardships in the block grant method of funding, points his frustration at choices lawmakers made in reducing income tax revenue.

Bonner Springs does not have local option budget flexibility to cushion its losses, and is looking at a reduction of some $388,000 that will hurt more with an expected growth in enrollment ahead.

Not to mention, he added, increases in the cost of utilities and health insurance.

And like many districts in the state, he said, Bonner Springs “was just beginning to recover from the economic downturn.”

Olathe Superintendent Marlin Berry said his school board is mixed. They recognize the benefits of the consistency the block grants could bring, but the district is facing some $2.1 million in reductions to its operating budget.

The administration is beginning to look at difficult choices, speculating over cuts “that we haven’t shared yet, but which are programs that will have faces on them.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.