TOPEKA — With a special legislative session slated for this week, school districts are hoping for the best, but planning for the worst — all in a vacuum of information.
The Kansas State Department of Education is fielding questions from superintendents across the state on how to handle a potential budget freeze if lawmakers don’t meet the orders of a Kansas Supreme Court ruling by June 30. Yet many of their questions cannot yet be answered, a spokesperson for the agency said recently.
“We’re answering them the best we can,” communications specialist Ann Bush said, but there are many details “that we just don’t have right now.”
Bush said further court guidance would be needed to help schools navigate the situation if a funding hiatus occurs, but the department is hopeful the matter will be resolved before then.
Superintendents have been trying to figure out whether they would be allowed to keep essential personnel in their buildings and pay time-sensitive bills if the Legislature’s second attempt to comply with the latest Gannon v. Kansas court ruling also fails. Their questions range from how to avoid disrupting their staff’s health insurance coverage to preventing late bond payments and the potential repercussions of not being able to meet those commitments.
On whether schools would be allowed to tap into their contingency reserves, federal aid or local property taxes if the fight over state aid leads to a shutdown, Bush said the court would need to issue guidance.
Late last month, the high court found the state isn’t distributing funds to schools equitably. The ruling followed a similar conclusion in February, which saw the court set a June 30 deadline for fixing the situation. Lawmakers tweaked school funding, but the justices ruled the changes made the situation worse, sending lawmakers back to the drawing board.
Many observers believe adding $38 million to the K-12 funding system would fulfill the ruling, but it is unclear whether lawmakers will go that route or take other approaches in the special legislative session that starts Thursday.
Scott McWilliams, superintendent of the 6,000-student Auburn-Washburn school district, said he was pleased when Gov. Sam Brownback announced the extra session to tackle the matter. But the questions of how and when lawmakers will resolve the issue remain a concern.
“I don’t think there will be relief until we know what the outcome of the upcoming session with be,” he said. “We have obligations, we have expectations that need to be met. We have bills to pay on behalf of our employees.”
McWilliams, who took over the reins of his district one year ago, said people might not always realize how much work goes on in schools over the summer break. Building upkeep, training and honing curriculums are among those functions.
“There are a lot of things we can accomplish when students aren’t physically in our buildings,” he said.