Lawmakers discuss school funding, state's economy at breakfast
The recently-passed education funding bill that switched funding for Kansas school districts to a “block grant” system is still a sore spot for educators in the Holton area, as local representatives in the Kansas Legislature heard on Saturday morning during the annual Holton/Jackson County Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast.
About 40 people were in attendance at the legislative breakfast, held at Penny’s on the west side of Holton’s Town Square and featuring Becky Hutchins and Randy Garber from the Kansas House of Representatives and Sen. Dennis Pyle. Area legislators also discussed concerns about the state’s economy, budgets and tax cuts, election dates and the care of foster children.
But the “block grant” school funding bill, signed into law by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback in late March, continued to hold center stage with legislators and area school officials. Pyle said that the bill stemmed from judicial efforts to get the state to change its funding formula for schools, and now that the bill has been passed, legislators want to “wait and see what happens with the judiciary.”
Pyle also said he favored language in the bill that prevented school districts from using their funds to sue state officials in order to change funding formulas.
“We have to stop this legal challenge from continuing,” he said. “Taxpayer resources are being spent on lawsuits, when they could be being spent in the classroom.”
Pyle’s statement that schools continue to get more funding year after year was challenged by Holton USD 336 Superintendent Dennis Stones, who argued that too much of the funds that schools are now getting are funneled into the KPERS pension system for educators. Stones, who noted that he came out of retirement to serve as Holton’s superintendent, said about 25 percent of his salary goes into KPERS “and I get nothing back.”
Pyle argued that with many teachers approaching retirement age, the amount contributed to KPERS should be considered “part of the cost of education.” Still, Stones contended that the reasoning behind the block grant bill — the need to rewrite the state’s education funding formula — was “a lot of smoke and mirrors” that didn’t address the real issue of what was wrong, if anything, with the formula.
“The formula did what it was supposed to do,” Stones said. “The only thing that happened is that it was never funded fully.”
Pyle agreed, but noted that when the state funding formula went into effect in 1992, there were only seven formula weightings that affected how individual districts would be funded on top of the state’s $3,600-per-student formula at the time. Today, he said, there are 17 such weightings that determined school funding, but if the state had stayed with seven weightings, the base per-student formula would be closer to $6,500.
Still, with some schools having to close early this year because they are reportedly not getting enough funding, Holton assistant superintendent Joe Kelly questioned why the block grant bill had to be “pushed through the Legislature.” Pyle said that while “things can move fast and things can move slow” at the state level, the bill has still received the attention it needed from education advocates and the media.
“I would challenge that it’s probably gotten more coverage and was brought more to light than most bills we’ve dealt with this session,” Pyle said. “It did move fast, I’m not going to deny that. But did it not get what it needed for attention? I would say it got attention, and people have had time to respond.”
Garber estimated that education and the state’s Department for Children and Families take up about 82 percent of the state’s general fund budget. He also voiced concerns with how issues regarding foster children are dealt with in the DCF, noting that sometimes “the safety nets we have in place sometimes fail” when children are abused, and that must be changed.
Another important issue was the state’s budget and revenues, the latter of which Pyle said has increased over last year despite revenue projections and estimates. Revenue shortfalls, he said, should be blamed on an underperforming economy, not Brownback’s efforts to cut income taxes for Kansans.
Garber agreed, saying that legislators have been getting “beat up” for tax cuts enacted in 2012. However, he added that with an estimated increase in the difference between wages that Kansans and Missourians are earning, “I think the tax cuts are doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Hutchins, who said she came back to the Legislature as “a new freshman” after nearly a decade off, also noted that the Legislature is having to deal with “a $600 million hole in revenue” that resulted from “a perfect storm” agitated by hits in two of the state’s biggest industries. Those are the oil and natural gas industry, taking a hit with oil prices bottoming out in recent months, and the aviation industry, which took a hit with aviation companies going out of state, she said.
“Eventually, there will be a revenue package down the line,” she added.
Also on legislators’ minds that morning was a bill authored with the intent of moving municipal government and school board elections from spring to fall. Pyle said Brownback and Senate President Susan Wagle have been pushing that particular bill, but he added that he would not support it.
Pyle also said he has been involved with a bill that would change the way that district court judges are retained in general elections. At present, all it takes is a “majority plus one” vote for district judges to keep their jobs, but he said he favored “raising the bar” to a two-thirds majority vote.
“If you’re doing your job, you shouldn’t have any challengers and you’re running non-partisan,” he said, “you should be able to get more of the vote.”