Whether the right amount is being spent on Kansas schoolchildren is in the eyes of the beholder.
No, that’s not exactly true.
The “right” amount may be determined by the courts.
Recently, a three-judge panel analyzed the current per-pupil expenditure by the state and concluded Kansas is violating the Constitution by not providing enough funding to K-12 public schools.
The judges did not set in concrete a certain amount of per-pupil funding, but they did “suggest” that the current $3,852 per pupil be raised to $4,564. That would be slightly above the $4,400 the state spent per pupil in 2009.
This is no small difference and would mean hundreds of millions of more dollars from the state.
The question any fair-minded taxpayer would want to know is, What would the schools do with this windfall, if those numbers stick with the Kansas Supreme Court?
To get a sense of what that would mean to a school district in Johnson County, I asked Tom Trigg, superintendent of the Blue Valley School District in southern Johnson County, and Olathe Superintendent Marlin Berry.
The perception may be that both districts are already living high on the hog, with all their new palatial schools dotting the districts and the latest in technology. But the reality is, while Blue Valley and Olathe can build all the buildings the patrons will approve in local bond issues, the districts have little control over what is spent in the classroom. There are two different buckets — capital improvements, such as buildings and technology, and operating expenses, such as teachers.
If the state implemented the suggested increase, districts throughout the state, including those in Johnson County, would see a sizable boost. How would that affect Blue Valley with its 22,000 students? Or Olathe, with its 30,000 students?
Trigg and Berry both said that if they were funded adequately, teacher salary increases would be their top priority.
Blue Valley teachers received an ongoing salary increase in only two of the past five years. The increases were extremely small: 1.36 percent and 2.03 percent.
Trigg pointed out it may be difficult to retain and attract top-notch teachers with a history of these kinds of raises. The teachers Blue Valley wants to retain and attract seek competitive salary packages.
One of the district’s strategic initiatives is to make certain that “every Blue Valley student has an exemplary teacher in the classroom.”
The point is, while Blue Valley is already an outstanding school district, more can be done to make the district even better. And Trigg wants to retain and hire terrific teachers, who require competitive salaries.
Trigg also said reducing classroom sizes would be high on his priority list.
Olathe has a similar story.
That district’s salaries for teachers have been frozen, or 1 percent raises have been given over the past five years. Berry said the district also has not added adequate staff to keep up with the growth each year, and, therefore, class size has gone up.
Berry said the district does not have full-time librarians in each elementary school. In the meantime health insurance is going up, bus contracts are rising and utilities are going up. Yet, state funding has stagnated at lower levels than the district requires.
We know from past reports that the Shawnee Mission School District has been even more challenged. The millions of extra dollars that could come from additional state funding would go into ensuring the continued excellence in a district where budget cutting has been the norm, reflected in larger class sizes and discontinued programs.
No one expects the state Supreme Court to act swiftly, but there is a growing consensus that the high court will find current spending inadequate.
The bitter irony is, even as school districts have been under the gun to just get by — because of cuts since 2009 — the governor and Legislature appear to be on a trajectory to cut millions of dollars from school budgets.
In light of what schools have dealt with already in decreased funding in the classrooms, that would be a real travesty.
This is why “activist” judges must step in.
To reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.