Government & Politics

State school board fears more cuts

TOPEKA — Members of the State Board of Education expressed frustration Tuesday that further cuts in Kansas public schools would hurt the quality of education.

The 10-member board received an update on state finances and their impact on the 293 school districts in Kansas. Last week, a group of economists and policymakers slashed the state revenue outlook by $235 million for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2010.

Board Chairwoman Janet Waugh said there's little reason to be optimistic that schools won't see further cuts in the coming weeks and during the 2010 legislative session.

"I just think we've gone beyond the point of no return," said Waugh, of Kansas City, Kan. "It's beyond ridiculous. We're hurting kids at this point."

Dale Dennis, deputy education commissioner for finance, said some cuts were inevitable. He said districts already had a shortfall in their general fund budgets of $100 million that wouldn't be made up by the state. That drop would force a cut in base state aid per student of $150, taking the amount to $4,068.

Kansas annually spends about $3 billion in general tax dollars on public education. Dennis said districts do have some funds in reserve accounts and state law allows some to be transferred to pay for salaries and other expenses. But other funds, such as those approved by voters for bond issues or capital improvements, can't be spent directly on the classroom.

"I think it's the worst that we've seen in our tenure," Dennis said of school funding. "A lot of the things that you could do simply have been closed to solve the problem."

Gov. Mark Parkinson has said he would balance the state budget by January when legislators return for the new session. Economists estimated that he would need to close a gap of $260 million to get the budget to break even.

Kansas schools already have seen reductions in per-pupil spending for the current year, taking it below the spending level of $4,257 in 2005-06. That's when legislators approved a $460 million funding increase to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court opinion that found that the state funding of schools was unconstitutional.

Waugh said districts have reduced staff in and out of the classroom, cut programs and scaled back on transportation to save money, but there are few options remaining.

The board has proposed that the Legislature increase funding next year by $280 million, restoring cuts to what is in state law.

"It's their law. It's not our law. We just want them to fund the law," Waugh said.