The start of public school classes in Kansas put on display new investment by the state as districts work to raise average teacher salaries and target resources at early-childhood instruction, mental health services and building safety priorities.

Ann Mah, a Topeka member of the Kansas State Board of Education, Mark Desetti, a representative of the Kansas-National Education Association, and Mark Tallman, of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said on the Capitol Insider podcast they were optimistic tangible benefits would arise from approval of a five-year, $525 million increase in state funding by the 2018 Legislature and Gov. Jeff Colyer.

They also warned the state’s politicians had to sustain the financial commitment to make ongoing improvement in student achievement.

“It’s huge,” Mah said. “We’re excited about where the schools are spending the money.”

Expansion of state aid was a consequence of litigation prompting the Kansas Supreme Court to declare the state system of financing education to be unconstitutional. Justices were alarmed 25 percent of students weren’t at basic levels in reading and math.

Mah said the surge would assist districts attempting to narrow student academic gaps. One piece of that response, she said, was directed at children approaching kindergarten.

“The biggest gaps in skills are when kids enter kindergarten,” Mah said. “We have kids who have no language skills, that don’t even know colors versus kids who are reading at the second-grade level and know 30,000 words.”

Tallman said Kansas public schools cut about 2,000 staff positions since 2009 despite expanding enrollment. Districts did this by deleting counselor, nursing, food service and maintenance employees, he said. School boards conserved cash by hiring inexperienced classroom teachers who earn lower wages than veteran educators.

State appropriation increases in the previous and current fiscal years will benefit districts developing a workforce more capable of responding to student academic issues and that earns a competitive salary, Tallman said.

“Districts will be looking at salary increases,” he said. “They will be looking at strategically adding new positions.”

Mah said adjustments in teacher wages could move the state from 45th to about 40th in the United States.

Desetti said the new state aid would begin making up for years of inadequate funding to K-12 education. Budget cuts, spending freezes, inflation and anti-union sentiment marked the tenure of Gov. Sam Brownback and made it difficult for districts to operate, he said.

“Demonizing teachers and reducing their salaries, benefits and job security. Who could have predicted it would create a teacher shortage?” said Desetti, with sarcasm. “It has.”

State lawmakers set aside $10 million for a pilot program to improve availability of mental health counseling. More traumatized children are in Kansas classrooms, Mah said.

“It’s just going to pay huge dividends,” she said. “Schools are now the largest provider of mental health services for students.”

The Legislature provided $5 million to harden buildings to better shield students from violence. The need for supplemental funding is greater because districts submitted applications for $13 million in building security dollars, Tallman said.

Desetti said some districts were tackling a backlog of technology purchases. Funding to professional development and teacher mentoring programs also was restored.

“Taking care of things that have been sidelined as they struggled to meet basic operational expenditures,” Desetti said.