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Kansas education officials say proposed funding bill would force immediate school program cuts

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TOPEKA, Kansas — Cutting $39 million in supplemental school funding would result in immediate reductions to school programs and staff, education officials told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Several school superintendents testified to the Senate Ways and Means Committee that the bill, which would overhaul the calculation for a type of supplemental school funding, would put many districts in the red for the fiscal year ending June 30.

Topeka public schools may be forced to cancel summer school programs and lay off custodial staff should the bill pass, Superintendent Julie Ford said. As it is, the district plans to spend $3 million from its reserve fund to cover this school's year's expenditures, according to Larry Robbins, deputy superintendent of operations for Topeka schools.

"When we look at our cuts, it's pretty tough to decide where we can make this cut of $897,000. Our teachers are under contract, our social workers, our counselors. We're obligated to them," Ford said.

Johnson County's six school districts would take the largest hit under the bill, making up about 28 percent of the reduction. Overall, they'd lose $11 million, with Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission surrendering their entire allotment of $3.3 million and $4.1 million respectively.

Sen. Ty Masterson, the Andover Republican who chairs the committee, repeatedly mentioned those districts' funding levels as an example of why he believes the current calculation is unfair.

Each local district can levy as much as $2,340 per student in property taxes to supplement state dollars. In poor areas, the levies generally must be higher than in wealthy areas to raise the same dollars, and the state provides additional money so districts don't fall behind others.

But some wealthy districts, such as Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley, also have large populations of students, so their potential tax revenue per student can be low enough to qualify for state aid.

PHOTO: Topeka School Superintendent Julie Ford attends a hearing of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015, in Topeka, Kan. A bill in the Kansas Legislature that would cut $39 million in supplemental funding from schools could lead to program and staff reductions, education officials, including Ford, told a Senate panel. (AP Photo/The Topeka Capital-Journal, Thad Allton)
Topeka School Superintendent Julie Ford attends a hearing of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015, in Topeka, Kan. A bill in the Kansas Legislature that would cut $39 million in supplemental funding from schools could lead to program and staff reductions, education officials, including Ford, told a Senate panel. (AP Photo/The Topeka Capital-Journal, Thad Allton)

"To say that we're going to disproportionately affect the poor districts is just false, quite frankly," Masterson said, adding that high energy prices temporarily increased property values in some rural counties, which then saw their state allotment fall due to small schools.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, testified against the bill, saying the current formula was effective, but the Legislature had failed to adequately fund it.

Dave Trabert, president of the conservative Kansas Policy Institute, was the only person who testified in favor of the bill, saying schools could make up for the lost funding by restructuring, outsourcing and reducing extra services.

But Trego County School District Superintendent George Griffith said his district and others in western Kansas have already pursued most options to improve efficiency and cut costs, so any move to change the formula should be made in the future instead of affecting current budgets.

"I feel that the current legislature is anti-schools and isn't interested in adequately funding education. It has put bigger emphasis on giving tax relief to those who can afford to pay," he said.

Gov. Sam Brownback, who has said he wants to scrap the current school funding system and instead fund each school directly with block grants, defended the timing of the move and said it can't wait because of the current multimillion-dollar budget gap.

The revenue shortfalls and automatic increases in education spending due to the funding formula have combined to create a situation "you've got to address somehow in this fiscal year," he said. "You can do more planning out for '16 and '17 but we've got an issue that we've got to pass this year."


Online:

Senate Bill 71: http://www.kslegislature.org/li/b2015_16/measures/documents/sb71_00_0000.pdf

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