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Who's Right in the Kansas School Funding Debate?

Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Rick Doll on the playground of Deerfield Elementary School. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)

Education funding is the largest single item in the state budget, but Kansans have been hearing conflicting information about how much money is spent on public schools. Many elected officials say that funding is up, but school officials say they’re having to cut their budgets. KPR’s Stephen Koranda looks at the varying messages on K-12 funding.

Governor Sam Brownback says Kansas school funding is at an all-time high, more than $4 billion. Last month, he described an encounter he had with a local school board member.
“She was saying, ‘look, we’re hurting, we’ve done everything we can and our budget’s hurting,’ and I handed her the budget that we had given that school district that year vs. the last year, and it was more money,” says Brownback.
Brownback says not only is funding up, the block grant system put in place this year gives schools more flexibility to spend the money they receive. Brownback says that will allow them to spend it where it’s needed.
“Look, put it in the classroom, not in a building or in the athletic field. I want it in my teachers, and that’s where I want it. That really should be an innovation that should help people over time,” says Brownback.
But here on the playground of Deerfield Elementary in Lawrence, some people take a different perspective.
“Our kids get a couple of recesses per day, 15 to 20 minutes, which is good. Get them to just get out, have some fun and get some physical exercise,” says Rick Doll, superintendent of Lawrence Public Schools.
As he steps inside the grade school building, Doll presents a different view of the block grant funding. He admits they have more spending flexibility, but argues they have less total money to spend. 
“That came at the expense of administration, bus routes, some class sizes. Many of those not directly impacting kids, but the class size issue certainly does impact kids,” says Doll.
Numbers from the governor’s office show Lawrence’s state support going from under $67 million last year to more than $69 million this year. However, Doll says that’s not all money they can choose how to spend. He says add a small enrollment increase and rising costs and that means t​hey’re in a tough spot.
“You either cut expenses someplace else, or you dip into reserves. Our reserves, just like a family savings account, those are one-time dollars. Once they’re spent, they’re gone, and we’re significantly dipping into our reserves,” says Doll.
So why the varying messages between politicians and schools? Is someone fibbing? Mark Tallman, with the Kansas Association of School Boards, says no one’s lying. It all depends how you look at it. For example, part of the increase in state funding is for the pension that covers school employees, KPERS.
“But none of that money can be spent for current teacher salaries, or books or other operating expenses,” says Tallman.
Tallman says when you look at operating funds -and adjust spending for inflation- it shows schools have less to spend per student.
“So if people are saying ‘has school funding been cut?’ It’s not a lower amount, but it’s essentially been flat. A small increase not keeping up with the rate of inflation,” says Tallman.
But not everyone agrees with that assessment.
“The funding has more than kept up with inflation," says Dave Trabert, with the small government think tank the Kansas Policy Institute.

He says if you crunch the numbers in a different way, school funding has outstripped inflation. He says schools need to be looking more at increasing their efficiency before asking for more tax dollars.
“Turning to the taxpayer and saying ‘we just need more’ is not necessary and it also ignores the fact that the taxpayers are facing the same situations and they just have to dig deeper and cut back on something else,” says Trabert.
So, long story short, it all comes down to how you look at it. Politicians can say state funding is up, and schools can still say they have tight budgets. That means Kansans will continue to hear conflicting messages when it comes to school spending.

Who's Right in the Kansas School Funding Debate?

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