TOPEKA — The state’s top education official predicted Friday the Legislature and governor will resolve an impasse with the Kansas Supreme Court over education funding ahead of a deadline that could result in the closure of schools.
Still, Education Commissioner Randy Watson told educators the Kansas State Department of Education will work to provide information to school districts. He acknowledged the fear among teachers and administrators.
During the past few days, officials in districts across the state have feverishly started developing plans and attempting to address anxious parents and staff as they hunker down for a potential constitutional crisis that could stop them from operating in less than a month. Districts have been warning not only of educational consequences, but also economic effects, if schools shut down.
“I know, over the last week, you’ve been worried and probably a little scared as we’re in uncharted territory about what may happen in the next 30 days,” Watson said in a video message released online. “I’d like to tell you we have all the answers; we don’t. But we’re working really hard to find those for you, and as we develop those, we’ll be releasing those to you just in case we have to put those into effect.”
Yet, the commissioner downplayed the possibility that schools will close or face a shut off of funds after a June 30 deadline set by the Kansas Supreme Court for lawmakers to enact a constitutional school funding system. The court has found legislative efforts to distribute funds to schools equitably don’t measure up.
“But I don’t think we’re going to have to (use contingency plans) because we have a long history of working together to solve problems, and I know that you, locally, the governor’s office, the Legislature — we’re going to roll up our sleeves, we’re going to find a solution to this,” Watson said.
Lawmakers wrapped up the 2016 legislative session Wednesday without addressing the Supreme Court’s latest school finance ruling, issued a week ago. As of Friday afternoon, Gov. Sam Brownback hadn’t yet said whether he will call lawmakers back to Topeka to address the issue.
Many believe an additional $40 million in school funding likely would satisfy the court. Lawmakers are divided on whether they want to pursue that option, with some viewing it as bowing to a politically minded court.
If the Legislature doesn’t act by June 30, the Supreme Court could stop spending by districts until legislators offer a response. Some lawmakers have proposed measures that, rather than addressing the court’s specific ruling, would seek to thwart any attempt by the justices to stop schools from spending money.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said Friday the Legislature is “absolutely committed” to making sure schools remain open. She criticized the court, as many Republicans have done.
“Activist judges released this opinion intending to divide voters in a year when the Legislature faces election and several members of the Supreme Court are up for retention,” Wagle said. “This opinion represents a tremendous overreach dictated from a liberal activist court to force political pressure on a conservative Legislature.”
Kansas’ spending on education as a percentage of its total spending ranks the third highest in the nation, Wagle said, citing data gathered by the National Association of State Budget Officers. Spending on K-12 education accounted for 29.6 percent of total state spending in fiscal year 2015, the data said.
However, Kansas ranks below the national average when all spending is taken into account, not just state spending, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards. U.S. Census records for the 2012-13 school year, the latest year available, ranks Kansas 27th in per-pupil funding when all sources of funding are combined.
Disputes over figures aside, the real potential consequences of a funding showdown remain. During the past few days, districts have started preparing for the possibility funding might be jammed after June 30.
“There is no precedent in the State of Kansas for a school closure, or even in surrounding states, to help predict exactly what might happen,” Mike Roth, Leavenworth USD 453 superintendent, said in a letter to parents and staff. “For those of us committed to the mission of preparing every student for success in every classroom, every day, it is an extremely frustrating and challenging time to be in public education.”
The state’s largest school district, Wichita USD 259, has raised concerns about the potential economic effects of a shutdown. Superintendent John Allison indicated millions could be taken from the local economy during a shutdown.
Monthly payroll and nonbond vendor payments for the district total approximately $50 million. Because most teachers opted to take lump-sum summer payment, Allison said the potential lost investment in the community could near $40 million.
“This funding crisis puts us in a situation that is not good for anyone — not for Kansas kids, who deserve equal opportunities for life-changing educational opportunities regardless of their Zip code — not for our employees, who are vital to our success and who fear for their livelihoods — and not for Kansas businesses and communities, who are dangerously close to hanging ‘closed for business’ signs on their doors if schools shut down,” Allison wrote on the district’s website.
KASB lobbyist Mark Tallman said schools make up approximately 4 percent to 5 percent of the state economy. Even the uncertainty surrounding school funding might begin to have economic effects, he suggested.
“You already may be having people second-guessing purchases or those sort of things,” Tallman said.