Government & Politics

Gov. Sam Brownback is cutting aid to Kansas schools by $44.5 million

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced plans to slash funds for education to try to close the state’s budget deficit.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced plans to slash funds for education to try to close the state’s budget deficit. The Associated Press

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Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Thursday announced $44.5 million in education cuts to help patch a budget hole blamed on deep income tax reductions he signed into law.

Brownback’s plan takes $28 million, or 1.5 percent, out of elementary and secondary education, including $5 million from Johnson County schools. The districts taking the biggest hits will be Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley.

The Republican governor also sliced more than $16 million, or 2 percent, from higher education, something he traveled the state campaigning for in 2013 when it was lawmakers who wanted to cut funds for colleges and universities.

Brownback announced the education cuts as lawmakers passed a bill mending a $344 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year ending June 30. The state is facing a nearly $600 million deficit for the next fiscal year.

The additional spending cuts announced Thursday for the current year came after state revenues fell $47 million short of estimates for January. The cuts take effect March 7.

Brownback was not available for comment other than a prepared statement issued by his office. It reiterated his position that education is responsible for driving up state spending. He urged school districts to dip into the millions of dollars they are holding in reserve to offset the cut.

The governor’s announcement was greeted grimly by education supporters who predicted midyear budget cuts for elementary and secondary schools and even higher tuition increases for college and university students.

Critics said Brownback’s announced cuts were inevitable despite how glowingly he portrayed the deep income tax cuts that he signed into law in 2012 and 2013.

“We knew this was going to happen. The math doesn’t work,” said Johnson County education advocate Judith Deedy, executive director of Game on for Kansas Schools. “At a time when our schools have higher demands than ever, now is not the time to start pulling back on funding.”

Critics said the cuts show that Brownback was disingenuous when he ran for re-election last year touting his support for education.

“It’s just another deception he put upon the voters of Kansas,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka.

Brownback’s spokeswoman said the governor’s position on education has always been clear.

“Gov. Brownback has consistently maintained that the education funding formula is broken and reform is needed to ensure more money goes to the classroom to benefit Kansas students,” Eileen Hawley said.

Some lawmakers think there is plenty of room for belt tightening.

Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Leawood Republican, said excessive administrative costs exist in elementary and secondary schools as well as in higher education.

“Education seems to be the only thing that is becoming less efficient as we put more money into it and as technology advances,” Melcher said. “We should be seeing the ability to educate on less money as we adopt technological advances.”

The governor’s cuts are a step back for Johnson County, where voters from five school districts agreed by overwhelming margins last month to put more money into schools. Among those was a $223 million bond issue in Shawnee Mission for new construction projects.

That district will lose $1.4 million under the governor’s plan. Superintendent Jim Hinson said in a statement that midyear cuts will be challenging because the district’s contractual and purchasing commitments are already in place.

“Our focus remains on providing outstanding educational services for our students,” Hinson said. “Today’s announcement is unfortunate but will not deter our mission.”

Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley indicated they would take the money from reserves. Blue Valley signaled it would tighten its operations budget as well.

“This will cause Blue Valley to fill a budget hole that was unanticipated and unplanned for,” said Superintendent Tom Trigg, whose district will lose $1.1 million.

“Unfortunately, the effect of tax policy changes has cut the state’s revenue stream to the point that important services, such as public education, are no longer being adequately funded,” Trigg said in an email.

The Kansas City, Kan., school district would lose about $1.4 million, while Olathe would be cut about $1.5 million.

“In watching the economic climate in our state right now, we were preparing for possible reductions but these appeared sooner than we anticipated,” Olathe Superintendent Marlin Berry said in a statement.

“Cuts to our budget during the year are much more difficult for us,” Berry said. “We will begin work right away to reduce with a focus on trying to protect our classrooms.”

In higher education, the University of Kansas will be nicked the most, losing $2.7 million. Kansas State University and the University of Kansas Medical Center would each be hit for about $2.1 million.

A spokesman for KU said it was premature to know where that school would cut.

“It’s disappointing to a lot of Kansans that cuts like these are being made, not only because they hurt families’ ability to afford college, but also because of the lost growth that results from not investing in workforce development and job creation,” KU spokesman Tim Caboni said in an email.

The latest round of cuts renewed criticism that Brownback’s income tax cuts are responsible for the budget mess facing the state. Critics dispute the governor’s idea that the massive deficit facing the state can be tied to schools.

“If everyone looks at the budget, it’s becoming clearer and clearer why this is happening,” said Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “We clearly do have a revenue problem.”

Brownback sidestepped any mention of income tax cuts in his statement, instead blaming the cuts on falling sales taxes. However, most of the state’s revenue decline has been with income taxes, according to state revenue figures.

The governor said the cuts for elementary and secondary schools could be undone if the Legislature agrees to change the way the state distributes money that puts property-poor school districts on equal footing with property-rich districts.

However, that plan, which has drawn opposition, would still mean cuts for education, including about $11 million for Johnson County schools.

“If we’re going to rethink what we’re doing for education,” Tallman said, “many of our members believe we’re also going to have to rethink tax policy as well.”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

Funding cuts by district

Johnson County

Blue Valley $1.178 million

Spring Hill $175,000

Gardner Edgerton $279,000

De Soto $349,000

Olathe $1.559 million

Shawnee Mission $1.444 million

Wyandotte County

Turner $253,000

Piper $96,000

Bonner Springs $143,000

Kansas City, Kan. $1.403 million

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