Kansas in Court Over Education Funding, Again

by | May 8, 2015 AT 10:10 AM

By Dion Lefler

The chief judge of the state's special-school finance court assigned the state's top education finance official some homework Tuesday:

Find out and report back how much of Gov. Sam Brownback's school block grants will go to schools and how much will go to the state pension fund.

The unorthodox assignment to Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis came at the end of day one of a two-day hearing on whether Senate Bill 7, the block grant bill passed by the Legislature at Brownback's request, meets the state's constitutional mandate for adequate and equitable funding of schools.

The new law provides schools with fixed grants based on their current funding. Brownback's plan is to fund the schools that way for two years while the Legislature hammers out a new school finance formula.

SB 7's block grants replace a formula that gave schools a base amount of aid, plus extra money for schools with high populations of at-risk, rural, poor and other harder-to-serve children.

Ruling on the constitutionality of SB 7 is the latest twist in the long-running Gannon case, so-called for the children of a Wichita pastor who are the named plaintiffs.

The Wichita school district is a co-plaintiff, and Superintendent John Allison and district lobbyist Diane Gjerstad were in the courtroom Thursday monitoring the proceedings.

Judge Franklin Thies, who leads the special school-finance panel, told Dennis to clarify how much of the block grant funding would go to districts and how much would go to the retirement fund, after the issue arose in testimony by the superintendent of the school district in Kansas City, Kan.

Cynthia Lane testified that the state has shorted the district $8.5 million in equalization funding and SB 7 will slice $2.6 million in each of the next two years.

So far, the district has put off needed repairs to roofs, boilers and other infrastructure and scratched a plan to replace an aging computer system that tracks students' attendance and achievement, she said. The district has also put a hold on expansion of early childhood and career-education programs, she said.

Lane testified that the block grants' funding freeze will leave the district underfunded to handle its projected population growth. Some schools are already converting old boiler rooms into classrooms and holding some classes in hallways, she said.

"We're expecting to grow next year by 500 students, but have no funding to support their education," she said.

In cross-examination, the state's attorney, Art Chalmers, led Lane through a lengthy series of flip-chart calculations concluding that the district has been able to cut property tax mill levies and will still receive millions of dollars more than under the old formula.

At one point, Judge Robert Fleming asked why the district felt the need to cut its programs by more than $14 million when it appears to be getting about $12 million more under SB 7.

Lane testified the situation is actually more complex.

"Keep in mind most of that is KPERS," she said, referring to mandatory payments to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. "I can't spend that on kids."

Chalmers contended the retirement money is a legitimate expense to count toward education funding because it's part of educators' salary and benefits package, which in turn figures in their decision whether to work in Kansas.

"It ultimately goes to teachers," he said.

Later, Dennis testified that the KPERS money goes from the state to the school districts, where it's immediately and automatically transferred to the retirement fund.

Dennis, the state's only witness, appeared to undercut the state's case when he testified that the block grant plan won't increase funding to equalize income for the state's property-poor districts.

"I think there's a reduction in about everybody," he said.

The hearing is scheduled to conclude Friday after additional testimony from Dennis and an appearance by Hutchinson Superintendent Shelly Kiblinger.

(c)2015 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)