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Kansas school finance task force has final meeting

By JOHN MILBURN

Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- A task force created by Gov. Sam Brownback to review the Kansas system for funding public schools held its final meeting Monday, though teachers argue they were being left out of the discussions.

The task force was formed by the Republican governor to look at how funds are spent by school districts and identify areas for improving fiscal efficiency.

Several recommendations were discussed Monday that could be included in the task force's final report to Brownback. Among the topics were consolidating districts' administrative positions and so-called back-office functions, changing purchasing laws for supplies and services, modifying negotiation rules for districts and teachers and creating two-year budget cycles to help districts with planning.

Ken Willard, chairman of the task force and a Republican member of the State Board of Education, consolidation should not be mandated at the state level in a manner that forces district to close buildings, even though that may be where the most money could be saved. He said even though buildings are big ticket items, closing them may not be in students' best interest.

"I think there's ground to be made and money saved by taking a look at the administrative piece," Willard said.

Other task force members said they supported centralizing some district functions and purchasing abilities, but wanted to retain some flexibility for districts to make decisions or provide financial incentives to facilitate change.

Brownback has said school districts should focus more of their resources on classroom instruction and find ways to reduce spending on functions that don't affect teaching. The governor said Monday that he would like to move to a two-year budget cycle

Members of the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teacher union, held a news conference Monday to lament the fact they were shut out of the task force's process. The teachers raised concerns that the task force, legislators and Brownback appeared to be more concerned with financial efficiency than what teachers called educational effectiveness.

Karen Godfrey, a language arts teacher from Topeka and president of the KNEA, said school districts have made spending cuts in recent years that resulted in larger class sizes, fewer classroom supplies and loss of support staff such as counselors, janitors and librarians. The result has been that teachers use time that should be spent on instruction to clean classrooms or counsel students facing personal issues not related to schools.

"Efficiency is not just about saving money," Godfrey said.

Kansas spends more than $3 billion in state revenues on public schools each year.

The task force is expected to make recommendations to the governor for possible action in the legislative session that starts Jan. 14.

New figures available Monday from the Legislative Research Department indicate that Brownback and the Republican-controlled Legislature will have to find new revenue or cut spending to close a projected $295 million shortfall in the 2014 budget. Much of the shortfall is the result of sweeping cuts in Kansas income taxes that take effect in January.