Barbara Shelly

Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts, not a piano purchase, are to blame for Kansas budget woes

Gov. Sam Brownback is striking all the wrong notes by slashing funding for Kansas schools.
Gov. Sam Brownback is striking all the wrong notes by slashing funding for Kansas schools. The Kansas City Star

Of course. It’s the piano’s fault.

For months, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has cast about for someone to blame for the fact that his state’s finances are on life support. He’s tried to pin the rap on President Barack Obama, on slow holiday shopping and on family values. He’s faulted the Kansas Legislature for passing the reckless income tax bill that he encouraged and signed.

But now a new scapegoat has come into focus. It’s those public schools and their free-spending ways. Look no further than the Kansas City, Kan., school district, whose school board recently authorized the purchase of a $47,000 grand piano for Sumner Academy of Arts and Sciences.

That just goes to show you, Brownback declared in a news release, that the entire Kansas school funding formula is off-kilter. He’s calling for it to be thrown out and replaced with something that gives schools less money.

“Recent media coverage of the purchase of a $48,000 grand piano is symptomatic of the inherent flaws in the current formula,” the governor said. “That money could and should have been used to hire another teacher to reduce class sizes and help improve academic achievement.”

Actually, it couldn’t have. As a long-term investment — and not an unusual one for school districts, by the way — the piano purchase came from the school district’s capital outlay fund. By law, that money cannot be used to hire teachers.

Honestly. I know Brownback thinks Kansas school financing is too complex, but the difference between capital funds and operating funds is pretty basic.

It seems like just a few months ago Brownback, seeking re-election, was bragging about being a great education governor.

“One of the myths is that you can’t cut taxes and invest in education,” he said.

Right. And there was his oft-repeated boast about increasing school funding by record amounts, without mentioning that his total included pension payments and capital improvement projects.

Actually, it was just a few months ago, after candidate Brownback learned to his alarm that Kansas voters value their public schools like almost nothing else.

But that was before Election Day rolled around. Before Brownback eked out a win over Democrat Paul Davis. Before forecasters disclosed one week later that the state was on track to spend $1 billion more by the end of the 2016 fiscal year than it was expected to receive in revenues. Before the governor of Kansas said that, gosh, he had no idea things were so bad.

Now, no more Mr. Education Governor.

“The dramatic increase in state education funding that has occurred over the last four years is unsustainable,” Brownback said Thursday, as he announced he was cutting the budget for elementary and secondary education by 1.5 percent, and slashing budgets for colleges and universities by 2 percent.

The reductions, which will force schools to immediately cut $45 million from already strained budgets, are necessary because tax revenues over the last couple months have dropped even further.

He has also called upon the Legislature to pass a controversial bill that would strip an additional $54 million from K-12 education spending this year. Oh, and he thinks school districts should start paying for pension increases instead of the state.

All the people at Sumner Academy wanted was to replace a piano that was 40-plus years old with a quality model that would serve students well for years to come.

Brownback wants to decimate a long-held belief that exposure to high-quality academics and arts is good for children, and what’s good for children is good for Kansas. All to preserve a tax-cut scheme that wrecked the state’s finances and hasn’t resulted in the economic growth that Brownback and his allies promised.

Who is really at fault here? Hint: It’s not the piano.

Reach Barbara Shelly at 816-234-4594 or Twitter: @bshelly.