TOPEKA — State Board of Education leaders are optimistic legislation giving the body control of a fund to alleviate extraordinary pressures faced by school districts will result in a better, more thorough process for doling out relief.
Board members see the potential change as a chance to put the application and review process on a timeline less disruptive to districts.
The extraordinary needs fund, a pot of approximately $15 million, sits under the purview of the State Finance Council, a panel comprised of legislative leaders and the governor. But legislation passed in March that Gov. Sam Brownback will have to soon sign or veto would move administration of the fund to the state board.
Lawmakers passed the legislation, House Bill 2655, in an effort to respond to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in February, which found funding between rich and poor districts inequitable. The bill overall modifies the formula for distributing state equity aid, but also includes a provision moving the extraordinary needs fund.
The Legislature created the fund in spring 2015 when it moved the state to a temporary block-grant school funding system. The fund is supposed to provide a measure of relief to districts that see precipitous funding drops due to falling property values or those who experience significant gains in enrollment.
State Board Chairman Jim McNiece, Wichita, said he was surprised when the idea to move power of the fund to the state board emerged. He said he hasn’t spoken with board members about the change since the bill passed. The board will convene later this month, where the fund likely will be discussed.
“The state board is always prepared to work in partnership with the Legislature,” McNiece said. “I’m happy they see us as a potential player. But the details, as we all know, the devil’s in the details.”
“I’m optimistic that that part of the finance formula, they’re asking us to be a part of. Too often, we find ourselves at odds or on different sides of an issue. Whenever we work together, it usually works out pretty well.”
Moving the fund isn’t yet a done deal. Brownback has given no indication he plans to veto the measure. But if he signs it, the bill will go to the high court for review, opening up the chance justices will rule it unconstitutional. That would move lawmakers back to square one.
The fund has proved a source of tension between districts and lawmakers. It produced long meetings where districts made a case publicly before the State Finance Council as it rendered high-stakes decisions about sometimes millions of dollars.
Some districts walked away with additional aid and others left empty-handed.
State board vice-chair Carolyn Wims-Campbell, of Topeka, said she is pleased that control of the fund likely will be turned over to the board. She expressed confidence the Kansas State Department of Education will be able to handle the process.
The department is developing a process for awarding funds that would take place during the summer and be concentrated in July.
“I personally feel like we know our districts,” Wims-Campbell said. “We know the ones that truly need the funds, so I think in some cases there may be more logical distribution of the funds than maybe in the past when it was handled by the State Finance Council.”
Mark Tallman, associate director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said districts likely are more comfortable with having the state board handle the fund, as opposed to the finance council. He said he hadn’t heard any concerns with the probable change.
Under the process, described by longtime deputy education commissioner Dale Dennis, district applications for aid would go before a committee made up of agency staff and at least one board member. The committee likely would hold a hearing for each application and produce a recommendation on if the district should receive aid from the fund, and how much.
The state board then would review and vote on the recommendations at a meeting in late July. The idea is to have the process wrapped up by the beginning of August. Typically, districts must publish their budgets in early August.
“We’re going to do our best to make it work smooth,” Dennis said.