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Kan. governor renews school efficiency effort

Published on -10/10/2012, 9:32 AM

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Gov. Sam Brownback said Tuesday he was confident that a school finance task force would find areas to squeeze more mileage out of state education spending and redirect that money to the classroom.

The Republican acknowledged that looking at what 286 school districts spend on buildings, utilities, administration or maintenance "was getting into the weeds," but he said it was a necessary exercise.

"There's not a line in the budget that says 'waste, fraud and abuse' and you say 'OK, I'll take that,"' the governor said during a Statehouse news conference. "It's time for government to get into the weeds and figure out how we're spending things and get more efficient at it."

Brownback held the news conference a day after the task force's first meeting. Democrats and education advocates have criticized the group's composition, saying the lack of educators on the task force suggests that the intent is to cut school spending.

But the governor defended his education record for his first two years in office, as well as his push to cut income taxes starting Jan. 1. The massive tax cuts were signed into law earlier this year.

"The best way to fund education is to grow the economy," Brownback said.

Democrats criticized that argument Tuesday, saying the large cuts will create future budget problems and inevitably lead to large cuts in education spending and other state services. The Legislature's nonpartisan research staff projects that the tax cuts will create collective budget shortfalls totaling nearly $2.5 billion over the next six years.

"You can't grow the economy and get yourself out of what essentially is a self-made budget crisis because of this tax plan," Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said after the governor's news conference. "When you don't agree with the facts, then you just label it scare tactics."

Hensley said restoring cuts in education spending is among the top issues that he and other Democrats are hearing during campaign trips being discussed by voters.

Reductions included a 5.9 percent drop in base aid per pupil during the Brownback's first year in office, though total dollars actually rose as the state put more money into teachers' pensions and capital improvements, among other line items.

The governor said Tuesday that he was committed to protecting K-12 funding, public safety and Medicaid spending in the upcoming budget. But he said he wants to see more money make it to classrooms.

He said one focus of any savings or additional spending would be improving fourth-grade reading scores and making more high school graduates ready for college or work.

The governor said the goal in state law was to get 65 percent of education dollars into classrooms, but he said the figure is being met by only 15 districts.

Brownback was adamant Tuesday that he didn't want the task force to recommend merging the state's districts and force rural communities to give up their schools.

"They can bring whatever report they want, but I'm opposed to school consolidation," he said.

He also said that putting more money in the classroom had been discussed by Kansas governors as far back as Democrat Joan Finney, who was in office in the early 1990s. He said there are ways that districts can pull their resources to execute key functions, such as food service and other purchasing.

"There's no question that many of these costs are legitimate," Brownback said. "This is not a new topic."

The 10-member task force was appointed by Brownback in September. On Monday, it heard from a private policy analyst, the Kansas Association of School Boards and a deputy state education commissioner. The next meeting is set for Nov. 9, and Brownback expects a report before the 2013 Legislature convenes in January.

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