Government & Politics

Education may face more cuts

TOPEKA — New students in Kansas' public schools and declining property values have punched what could become a $70 million hole in the state's already shaky budget, a top education official confirmed Friday.

Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis said Kansas faces being short in its ability to meet its legal obligations for providing aid to its 293 school districts during the current academic year. That's true even though the state already has reduced its per-pupil aid by 4.8 percent this year.

It's more bad news for state officials who already must deal with lower-than-anticipated tax collections in July, August and September. They face lowering per-pupil aid to schools further, making cuts in other parts of the budget or even raising taxes.

"The total could be $70 million," Dennis said.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jay Emler said the school finance hole is only one budget problem the state faces. And, he said, he doubts Kansas can raise taxes quickly enough to plug any shortfalls because legislators don't reconvene until January.

Emler, R-Lindsborg, predicted the state will be forced to adjust aid payments to schools.

"I don't see any way around it," Emler said. "I'm not going to try to sugarcoat this. We just don't have the money."

But Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, isn't moving to impose cuts before legislators reconvene. Spokeswoman Beth Martino said the governor is waiting to see whether October tax collections meet expectations and for the state's next financial forecast, which will be issued Nov. 5.

"It's too early to make hasty decisions and panic," Martino said.

The state distributes nearly $3 billion in aid to its public schools based on their enrollments. Kansas has a statewide property tax levy, but the bulk of the aid is covered by general tax revenue.

Kansas has seen four rounds of budget cuts and other adjustments this year to keep the state budget balanced through June 30, 2010. Schools lost $130 million and saw their base aid drop by $215 per student.

Because of the economy, the taxable value of residential and commercial property declined about $500 million for 2009, or 1.7 percent, Dennis said. Tax bills this fall are based on those values.

Meanwhile, he said, the state saw school enrollments rise this fall. There are about 2,500 new students, in addition to the 450,000 students schools already had, growth of about 0.6 percent.

But, Dennis said, schools also have seen applications for free-lunch programs jump an average of 11.5 percent. The state's aid formula allows districts to inflate their enrollments for each student in such a program because they're considered at risk of failing and in theory need more attention.

In the Wichita district, the state's largest, enrollment increased by 900 students and is now more than 50,000, the highest since 1975, said district lobbyist Diane Gjerstad.

More Wichita students also are seeking free lunches, which Gjerstad attributed to the economy. Aviation companies have been hit hard, and the four-county Wichita metropolitan area had 19 percent fewer manufacturing jobs in September than in September 2008 — a decline of 13,200.