Steve Rose

Kansas universities could face budget axe after state Supreme Court ruling on schools

Anyone who has recently sent their child to KU knows how the university has managed to keep running on most cylinders while state funding has plummeted.
Anyone who has recently sent their child to KU knows how the university has managed to keep running on most cylinders while state funding has plummeted.

University of Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod was one of many who were anxiously awaiting the Kansas Supreme Court decision on Kansas K-12 school funding.

The court found current spending inadequate and ordered more funding for schools. A compliant Kansas Legislature could start looking for other parts of the state budget to cut to offset increased spending on schools.

They have a year to figure it out, and it is not likely more funding will be raised exclusively by higher taxes. Cuts are likely. And higher education always seems to be high on the list when the chopping block comes out.

I singled out Girod because the chancellor just announced — prior to the court ruling — $20 million in budget cuts for KU, the largest university in the state. It resulted in a 6 percent across-the-board whack at the venerable institution.

That was savvy timing because a hungry Legislature looking for prey could eye KU but conclude there already has been a big bite taken out of its budget.

All the controversy about education funding in Kansas has been focused on K-12 for decades. Higher education affects far fewer students, and universities struggle to overcome the perception held by many that higher education is for the “elite.” As a result, higher education has consistently seen its state funding reduced without provoking the same public outcry that comes when K-12 funding is trimmed.

Thus, during the last decade, higher education in Kansas has endured $100 million in cuts to state funding, a 8.6 percent decrease. A token $15 million was recently restored to higher education after a push from numerous newly-elected moderates in the Legislature to help offset the bloodbath of 2012, when there was a $30.7 million cut in one year to Kansas universities, technical schools and community colleges.

But with a quirky formula, legislators mostly neglected the state’s two largest schools: the University of Kansas and Kansas State University. They received a paltry share of that increase, and they were the ones who had taken the brunt of the largest hits. The so-called rationale was that the bigger universities did not need the money as badly as the smaller colleges and universities in Kansas. That was sheer rural politics at work, and it was blatantly unfair and misguided.

Anyone who has recently sent their child to KU knows how the university has managed to keep running on most cylinders while state funding has plummeted. Tuition has risen steeply to offset state budget cuts. This year was the smallest increase in years, only 3 percent in tuition and fees. That brings the total tuition at KU for an in-state student to approximately $11,000 per year.

Tuition in the recent past at KU has risen 6 to 9 percent a year. This year, another increase like that might have been implemented, but because Girod took the Jayhawk by the neck and squeezed out $20 million, tuition increases were mitigated.

That’s solid, bold management. And pretty smart, too. Girod must have calculated that the Legislature was going to be challenged for more K-12 spending by the Supreme Court and would be looking at the rest of the state budget pie for possible cuts.

If the increase in school funding ordered by the court ends up being, say, hundreds of millions of dollars more per year, every president of every Kansas state-funded college and university should be quivering. Other higher education leaders — in fact, all leaders in Kansas who run state-funded institutions — may want to take a page out of Girod’s playbook.

Demonstrate now, before the Legislature starts snooping around, that inefficiencies can be found, and budgets can be slimmed down before an axe falls from Topeka. It could be good politics, demonstrate strong leadership and save some angst later when legislators start looking at limiting tax increases by doing some trimming elsewhere.

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