Government & Politics

Educators wary of cuts

TOPEKA — Gov. Mark Parkinson's budget included what seemed to many educators to be a nice gesture: a $50 per-student increase in state aid.

But the gesture requires legislators to raise taxes. If they won't, schools could face deeper cuts in state aid than those they endured last year.

Parkinson has proposed raising the sales tax from 5.3 percent to 6.3 percent to help close a projected $400 million hole in the state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Much of that new revenue would go to public schools, replacing federal stimulus funds that will run out after this year.

Absent the tax increase, Parkinson said schools would see an additional $187 million in cuts, or about $286 per student.

Legislators continued Wednesday to examine Parkinson's proposals. Budget issues aren't likely to be resolved until late April or early May.

Education officials think they'll be doing well to avoid additional cuts.

"What the governor has said very clearly is this isn't a choice of restoring the cuts that have been made, it's simply stopping the bleeding," said Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

A series of cuts over the past year have eroded much of the spending increases that legislators passed in 2006 to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court ruling. The cuts have resulted in elimination of programs and staff layoffs.

"The governor's proposal gives us great hope, but I don't know how the Legislature will react," State Board of Education Chairwoman Janet Waugh said.

House Speaker Mike O'Neal said because of $1 billion in new spending in recent years schools are better positioned to weather the state's financial downturn.

"Fortunately, whether it's the courts forcing the Legislature to do it or the Legislature doing it, we were in position to make some substantial investments in the schools before the recession hit," said O'Neal, R-Hutchinson. "So they've got more capacity to absorb this type of recession than most agencies."

For Wichita, the state's largest school district, with nearly 50,000 students, $50 per student will minimize further cuts but not prevent them, the district's lobbyist said.

Diane Gjerstad said district officials have used federal funds to maintain classroom support programs, but those could be lost, along with numerous teaching positions districtwide.

"We are concerned about the support services that Wichita has built," she said. "Those are being eroded. That's important because of demographics" that include a high level of poverty and many minority students.

Districts are receiving $4,012 per student this school year, after they originally expected about $4,400 per student.

But Tallman noted that some legislators think schools can withstand further cuts that take their base below $4,012 per student.

"We can go back to the system that we had five or 10 years ago, but are you going to get the achievement results that we have been getting?" Tallman said. "That's what has the districts so concerned."

House Appropriations Chairman Kevin Yoder said raising taxes is not the first choice for many.

"I think Kansans expect us to do our jobs here and find reductions, to work harder, and the easy answer is to simply go to Kansans and take more of their money. Anybody can do that," said Yoder, R-Overland Park.

Regardless of the tax proposal, more litigation is in the works against the state.

John Robb represents 74 districts that filed a motion with the Kansas Supreme Court on Monday to reopen its 2006 finance ruling. The coalition contends that the state is failing to live up to its constitutional requirements to properly fund education. Raising taxes helps, but Robb said it doesn't solve the problem.

"The former education spending levels were set based upon what it costs schools to do their jobs," Robb said. "I don't know how schools can be expected to continue to do what is asked of them if their costs are not funded."

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