Kansas State Board of Education members Deena Horst of Salina and Danny Zeck of Atchison listen as state Department of Education members outline details of Senate Bill 113, a K-12 education funding and policy bill on the desk of Gov. Laura Kelly. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — The school funding bill forwarded by the Kansas Legislature to Gov. Laura Kelly — noteworthy for what it excluded as well as what it included — contained an unexpected budget twist that potentially blindsided as many as 100 public school districts with declining enrollment.
Kansas Department of Education officials tunneling into details of Senate Bill 113, which officially landed Monday on Kelly’s desk, said the revised formula for how student enrollment was used to determine a district’s basic funding would be detrimental to more than one-third of the state’s public school districts. The policy was altered at close of the 2023 session without typical public hearings, debates or explanations.
Currently, Kansas public school districts have the option of relying on student headcount from the prior year or second preceding year when calculating foundational state aid. Under the bill passed on the session’s final day April 28, districts would be restricted to using the current year or prior year’s enrollment for determining funding from the state. Enrollment would be multiplied by base aid per pupil of $5,088 a year.
This change would be a financial bonus to districts with growing student populations. It amounted to a loss for districts experiencing year after year of falling enrollment. Inability to rely on the second prior year to calculate state funding would harm budgets of an estimated 100 school districts. The most severely damaged would be districts in rural parts of the state, said Randy Watson, commissioner at the state Department of Education.
“You have a handful of districts that are growing. You have a lot of others that are declining,” Watson said in a Tuesday interview. “What I think is panicking them is that it happened so late and they already went through their budget process as if they had it and now they don’t. Some of our smallest rural communities, they’re losing a lot of money.”
The surprise losses in dozens of low-enrollment districts could range from $100,000 to $400,000 or more in the upcoming school year, he said.
The bill passed the Kansas Senate on a vote of 23-16 and in the House by a margin of 83-37 with large GOP majorities and a sprinkling of Democratic support. The governor, after receiving a bill, has 10 days to sign or veto the legislation, or allow it to become state law without a signature. The measure passed both chambers with less than two-thirds majorities necessary to override a veto.
‘That’s the pitfall’
Complicating this K-12 budgeting issue were decisions by House and Senate GOP leadership to adjourn “sine die,” which meant lawmakers would skip the traditional one-day ceremonial conclusion of the annual session. The maneuver eliminated a window of opportunity for the Legislature to consider overriding a school-funding bill veto by Kelly or to draft an alternative education appropriations bill.
If the governor vetoed Senate Bill 113, a special session of the Legislature would have to be called to address state spending for benefit of 500,000 students in the 2023-2024 academic year.
Melanie Haas, chair of the Kansas State Board of Education, said the Legislature complicated their work by pulling together the school funding bill in the hurly-burly closing hours of the session. Key decisions were made in a conference committee meeting of three senators and three representatives who sat down at a statehouse table to craft a deal. The 125 representatives and 40 senators, not participants in that dialogue, couldn’t amend the bundled bill.
This approach eliminated opportunities for thoughtful discussion that ought to accompany changes in the method of calculating Kansas school aid, Haas said.
“That’s the pitfall of not having an opportunity for outside comment when they don’t discuss it in committee,” she said.
Craig Neuenswander, deputy commissioner for fiscal and administrative services at the state Department of Education, said the 5% increase in the basic per-pupil appropriations to public school districts wouldn’t be enough to keep all districts from a decline in state aid during the upcoming school year.
He scheduled a conference call with Kansas district administrators this week to begin preparing those public schools for the reversal of fortune.
K-12 policy package
To chagrin of political conservatives and champions of private schools, the bill excluded state taxpayer investment in some variation of school vouchers.
“The state board position on it is that public funds should go to public entities,” Watson said.
The bill continued to make available $10 million annually in state income tax credits for donors contributing to student scholarships at accredited private schools or, starting this year, schools working in “good faith” to become accredited. No clear definition of good faith was provided, but the value of the tax credit was sweetened and scholarship eligibility broadened to include families with higher incomes.
Haas said the state Board of Education was disappointed the final version of the K-12 budget excluded an appropriation of $72 million that would have reduced the burden on local school districts compelled to cover costs of special education programs. The state Board of Education and the governor recommended a five-year initiative with steady increases in special education spending, which would stop the practice of siphoning dollars otherwise available to education of all students.
“It kind of feels like there’s not a plan and a path forward,” Haas said. “That’s frustrating for special ed and that’s frustrating for districts who have to come up with those funds out of their general budgets.”
The Legislature did create in the bill a task force to draft recommendations for amending the formula on special education spending. Seven of 11 members of the task force would be appointed by legislators, three chosen by the state Department of Education and one selected by the state Board of Education.
“This may be a cynical approach,” said state Board of Education vice president Jim Porter, a Fredonia resident and former teacher, principal and superintendent. “The majority are appointed by people who have consistently refused to allow additional funding of special education.”
To the relief of many, it included an increase of 5% in foundational public school funding necessary to comply with an inflation index adjustment endorsed by the Kansas Supreme Court, which had ruled the state’s previous school finance system violated the Kansas Constitution.
The bill gave the Legislature first right of refusal on purchase of school buildings earmarked to be sold by districts. If the Legislature received notice of a closure while in session, lawmakers would have 45 days to pass a resolution declaring the Legislature’s intent. If the Legislature was out of session, the 45-day clock wouldn’t start until lawmakers convened in January.
A vote of the Legislature to buy the property would initiate a 180-day clock during which a state agency could complete the purchase. The Legislative Coordinating Council could extend that negotiating period by 60 days.
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