Kansas schools should not sue

Remarks to be delivered to the January 4, 2010 meeting of the Wichita public school board.

Before considering a lawsuit against the citizens of the State of Kansas, there are several things this school district and Kansas schools should do to make it through the current fiscal situation.

I’m concerned about the corrosive environment a lawsuit creates in Kansas politics. Many social service agencies have experienced deep cuts, while schools have escaped with only minor cuts. Recent figures I received from the Kansas State Department of Education, which include all the cuts made through late December, estimate that for the current school year, funding for Kansas schools statewide will fall by just 3.4 percent.

I know that USD 259’s legislative platform says that funding has been cut by 9.5 percent. Kansas School Board member David Dennis’ editorial in yesterday’s Wichita Eagle claimed a larger cut. But these cuts are to base state aid per pupil, which represents less than one-third of Wichita school funding. When considering all sources of funding, the drop is much smaller. This focus on base state aid per pupil alone is misleading.

Several legislators have told me that this legislative session shapes up as a battle between schools and the social service agencies. This doesn’t seem helpful and productive.

Then, there’s the battle this lawsuit declares on the Kansas taxpayer. Many Kansans are without jobs or are suffering economic hardship. To ask them to pay more simply because schools are facing a 3.4 percent cut seems like the schools are not willing to bear their share of the burden we are all asked to accept.

I’m also concerned that Wichita and Kansas schools are not doing everything possible to reduce costs before asking for more funds.

For example, in 2007 the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released the study School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006. Their findings are this: “Every existing school choice program is at least fiscally neutral, and most produce a substantial savings.” Is this board supportive of charter schools and other school choice programs as a way to save money?

Then, Kansas School Board member Walt Chappell has testified before the House Appropriations Committee on several ways that Kansas schools could save money.

One thing that would help schools make it through the present situation is to tap into the nearly $700 million unspent dollars in a collection of funds. These funds do not include money set aside for capital projects and debt service.

This is a controversial issue, it seems. The editorial by David Dennis recited a list of these funds and their balances. But that doesn’t tell us anything about whether these funds have the correct balances.

Evidence gathered by the Kansas Policy Institute has found that statewide, these fund balances have grown by 53 percent over the last four years. For the Wichita school district, these balances have grown from $74 million to $94 million over the last four years. These funds grow when more money is added to them than is spent — strong evidence that schools have been receiving more money than they have needed.

The editorial by David Dennis mentioned the “contingency reserve fund” as the “one fund available for use.” But Kansas Deputy Commissioner of Education Dale Dennis has said that all of these funds are available, if school districts choose to use them.

Other ideas Chappell presented are to increase the productivity of teachers, thereby making better use of existing classrooms and decreasing student/teacher ratios; “pay-to-play” for expensive varsity sports; and changing the definition of an at-risk student to something that is a meaningful indication of a child’s ability to learn.

There’s also the efficiency audit of Kansas schools districts that was commissioned by the 2010 Commission. This audit was canceled because “district administrators are too busy dealing with budget cuts to complete the audit,” according to the commission’s chair.

But it seems that a time of budgetary stress is just the right time to look for efficiency and savings. Although the audit was canceled, school districts could choose to participate voluntarily. Is participation something the Wichita district considered?

Finally, there’s the federal Race to the Top funds. Participation requires that states embrace charter schools and other reforms. But the charter school law in Kansas is so restrictive that few bother to apply for charters. Will this board advocate for reforms that would make Kansas eligible for Race to the Top funds?

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