Ed board seeking $450M
By JOHN MILBURN
TOPEKA -- The Kansas State Board of Education approved a request Tuesday to seek additional $450 million in state spending on public schools for the 2014 state budget cycle, despite concerns such an amount is unrealistic given the state's economic climate.
Board members voted 7-2 to submit the request to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the GOP-controlled Legislature. The request covers education expenses for the 2013-14 school year.
Members said they believed they had to ask legislators to increase education spending, including increasing the base state aid per pupil to $4,492, up from the $3,838 that districts now receive. The increase represents $440.1 million of the board's request.
"I believe that I am supposed to be an advocate for the students. In doing that, I believe we need to follow the law, whether it's realistic or not, that's the law on the books," said Sally Cauble, a Republican from Liberal who represents the western half of the state including Ellis County.
The request includes identifying other priorities, including maintaining required funding for special education and increasing money for teachers' professional development.
A factor that played into the decision was the ongoing school finance lawsuit before a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court. A coalition of 54 school districts and parents has sued the state on the grounds it is failing its constitutional duty to adequately fund schools.
Closing arguments are scheduled for August with a ruling expected by year's end. However, that ruling is expected to be appealed regardless of the outcome to the Kansas Supreme Court. The board was told Tuesday a hearing on the appeal likely wouldn't come until the fall of 2013 and would have no bearing on the funding request for next year.
The lawsuit was filed in response to cuts in education spending legislators made in response to the Great Recession, which saw available state revenues decline. Attorneys for the state contend Kansas policymakers did the best they could to prevent even deeper cuts to schools, while balancing the needs of all of state government.
Brownback and legislators approved some $40 million in new education spending for the fiscal year that began July 1, including adding $58 per student in base aid. Kansas spends more than half its budget on public schools and higher education.
Ken Willard, a Republican board member from Hutchinson, said he didn't get a clear indication from his discussions about the budget request with Brownback's office what the administration was willing to consider. Willard said the pending school lawsuit and implementation of the federal health care law all are weighing on state budgets, something board members need to consider.
"I think the most productive thing we could do would be to prioritize the things that we want," he said.
Board member Walt Chappell, a Wichita Republican, warned that last year's request was "dead on arrival" when it was sent to the Statehouse. He countered that if the board wanted to ask for more money that is also show legislators and Brownback where it would come from in the budget.
Chappell suggested redrawing school district boundaries to eliminate any district below 1,600 students, cutting administrative positions and eliminating a provision in state law that gives smaller districts additional funds because of their size. He estimated that it would save $500 million annually.
"I feel like there's another way to solve the problem," Chappell said. "Our legislators are doing the best they can."