Archive for Thursday, January 12, 2006

Legislator questions willingness to finance schools

January 12, 2006

An audit report calling for $312 million to $399 million more for education funding received mixed reviews from legislators Monday in Topeka.

Click here to view the report

And local officials say they're unsure whether legislators will follow through on recommendations in the report.

State Rep. Ray Cox, R-Bonner Springs, and administrators of the Basehor-Linwood school district wholeheartedly agree with the report that more money needs to be funneled into schools. However, they remain unconvinced that the report will spur legislative action.

"This is just my opinion, but I'd say confidence in the Legislature is at an all-time low," said the school district's Don Swartz, citing lawmakers' failings in recent years to increase education funding -- unless ordered by the courts.

"Does this mean it's going to be funded? ... I have an uneasy feeling (the Legislature) might not do it unless the Supreme Court says, 'you're going to do something,'" said Cox, who represents Basehor, Bonner Springs and parts of Shawnee.

The report, completed by the Legislative Division of Post Audit, maintains that school districts need more money to meet performance levels required by the state.

It indicates that schools in Kansas need more money for funding special education, bilingual studies and to educate at-risk students.

The report also recommends spending more money for inner-city school districts while reducing factors that favor smaller districts.

Cox, who a week ago indicated the report's importance in shaping this year's legislative session, said additional money also could be used to bolster teacher salaries, which would greatly aid in staff recruitment and retention.

"How many bilingual teachers or special education teachers are there around?" he said. "How many have the patience to stay with it?"

In Basehor-Linwood -- where bilingual studies and special education isn't a glaring need -- administrators contend that additional money would help improve teacher salaries, which is among the districts top four priorities. A first-year teacher in Basehor-Linwood makes far less than a new teacher in other districts, Swartz said.

"We are as much as $5,000 behind other districts in beginning teacher pay," he said.

The school district, which received excellence marks in 13 of 18 areas on the latest Kansas assessments, also could use the additional money to keep pace with the No Child Left Behind Act, an unfunded federal mandate.

Under the act, schools that do not meet progress standards are subject to sanctions. And since implementation of No Child Left Behind, the school district has attempted to meet provisions by revising core subjects such as math, science and reading.

The revisions, which include purchasing new equipment and textbooks for kindergarten through 12th grade students, can cost between $100,000 to $200,000, school officials said.

"That's a high-dollar deal," Swartz said. "And you can't be behind on those."

Some observers believe the post audit report will make expanded gambling attractive to lawmakers as they attempt to find more money for schools without raising taxes. Cox, who's in favor of both gaming and more money for schools, said it's unclear what the outcome of Monday's report will be.

Thus far, it has divided pro-education legislators from fiscal hardliners and created a division among school districts.

"It's big districts versus small districts, west versus east," he said. "I hate to see that division. I'm not sure anybody knows how this is going to play out."

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