Government & Politics

Summer vacation starts early for kids in some financially-strapped Kansas schools

When students shuffle through school doors in one central Kansas district Friday morning, they likely will be thinking about the upcoming summer vacation.

Not the one originally scheduled to begin after class May 20. But the one that starts Friday afternoon, when the bells ring inside the Twin Valley school district for the last time this semester.

Because of a late-year change in state aid — fueled by a change in the way schools are funded in Kansas — the district is one of at least seven across the state shutting doors earlier than scheduled this school year.

Twin Valley is the first to close early. A handful of other schools will send kids on their way next week.

“Basically, we are out of money,” said Jan Neufeld, superintendent of the Twin Valley school district, which consists of schools in Bennington and Tescott. “Is it good for kids? Of course not. No decline in funding is good for kids.”

Yet superintendents say it’s what they faced after Gov. Sam Brownback signed a new school financing law in March. It replaced a more complex school funding formula with flexible block grants for the next two years.

Although the legislation restored a recent $28 million automatic cut by the governor that affected all school districts, it also slashed $51 million in equalization aid — meant to close funding gaps between rich and poor districts — that has largely benefited urban districts such as Wichita and Kansas City, Kan.

And the legislation reduced funding that districts had expected for the current school year.

In districts that rely heavily on state aid, that reduction could be significant. The cuts came as some districts were already financially strapped because of increasing costs and declining income in various areas.

A few could pull from hearty reserves to make up for the cuts. But districts without flush contingency funds were left scrambling to make up the difference so late in the school year.

“Some who had very little reserves available, they would really struggle to manage this,” said Mark Tallman, associate executive director at the Kansas Association of School Boards. “They’ve had to find ways to respond.”

Closing school early is one way to save money and close the gap caused by the reduction. Districts choosing this option will have already met the state minimum requirement for attendance days by the time they close. Some districts had more flexibility in their calendar because of a lack of snow days this past year.

Superintendent Marty Stessman said the Shawnee Heights school district east of Topeka needed to make up for a $190,000 reduction. The district froze spending in areas such as instructional and library expenditures and professional development.

Two open custodial positions in Shawnee Heights weren’t filled. All those changes still didn’t get the district where it needed to be.

So it looked at the school calendar. Students will get out two days early, saving about $28,000 a day, Stessman said. Those savings come from nonteaching staff salaries and transportation costs.

The last day in Stessman’s district was initially scheduled for May 21. The last day is now May 19.

“When 85 to 95 percent of your expenditures are fixed, and you receive notice halfway through the year that you have to cut, you have to make decisions,” Stessman said. “When we are running close to zero in all of our accounts, there is no leeway.”

Eight school districts recently applied for additional money from the state’s Extraordinary Need Fund, which was created as part of the new school finance law. The districts requested a total of about $1.2 million, and $498,000 was approved by the State Finance Council. Three districts that submitted requests didn’t receive any additional money.

More districts are expected to request money from the fund.

Brownback’s office said schools have received more funding this year than last year.

That point has been much debated. But local school officials say their crises come from getting less than they expected and budgeted for.

Inside the Twin Valley district, once the children have left for the summer, officials will turn off the air conditioning in the buildings and teachers will take time to do extra projects and spend time on professional development.

“We’re just trying to catch up on things,” Neufeld said.

The district recently announced other cuts, such as eliminating junior high cheerleading and the boys and girls golf program.

Schools face what families do when it comes to paying bills and spending money, Neufeld said.

“When you and your family have $10 left in your bank account to get to Sunday, do you go out for ice cream?” she said. “No. You hunker down, get frugal and think about another way.”

The Wichita Eagle’s Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.

To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to lbauer@kcstar.com.

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