Archive for Wednesday, November 19, 2008

State money pinch could hurt schools

November 19, 2008

— Funding to Kansas public schools would face a cut under a proposal made by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ budget office, officials said Thursday.

And the potential crunch could mean fee increases in Tonganoxie.

The current fiscal year budget would be cut $11 million, from $3.246 billion to $3.235 billion. And the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2009, would face another cut of approximately $1.5 million.

Those reductions may not seem like a lot relative to the overall school budget, but education advocates point out that under current state law, schools were supposed to get an increase in funding of approximately $150 million.

In Tonganoxie, Superintendent Richard Erickson discussed the strain it could have on his school district.

“We’re going to be prepared if we have to,” Erickson said. “It won’t be easy because we live with a tight budget right now.”

Erickson said he might propose a transportation change for students who live less than 2 1/2 miles from school as a way to offset funding issues.

“That’s something I would rather not do,” Erickson said. “I think it’s a safety factor. We don’t want those students crossing busy thoroughfares right now.”

Erickson also said the district likely will need to assess whether to raise student fees again this school year.

“There are a lot of different options there,” he said.

State Board of Education Chairman Bill Wagnon, D-Topeka, said failure to provide the funding increase would have a negative effect on students.

He said recent increases school funding have led to better academic achievement by many students. Now more funding is needed to raise up the level of the most difficult students, he said.

“That is my real fear,” Wagnon said. “The resources needed to meet the increasingly difficult challenges are just simply not going to be there.”

A large portion of those proposed increases already written into law are linked to Kansas Supreme Court-ordered increases in funding for at-risk and special education students. The court decision followed a lawsuit by school districts that claimed the state failed to adequately fund education.

“If the Legislature were not to fund the school finance law, that would have implications then on the lawsuit,” said Mark Tallman, spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

The proposal by Sebelius’ budget office is not a final recommendation. Sebelius will propose a budget to the Legislature when the 2009 session starts in January.

But the downturn in the national economy has hit the state budget hard.

State budget experts say lawmakers could be facing a $1 billion shortfall in the next fiscal year.

Sebelius has said she wants to protect public school and social service funding, but together that makes up about three-fourths of the state budget.

Erickson said he recalls another time when school budgets were cut. It was during the 1980s when Gov. Mike Hayden was in office and Erickson was superintendent at Inman.

“That was the only other time we experienced a reduction during the school year,” Erickson said.

He said what makes the crunch even more difficult during the school year is that most expenditures for equipment are made during the school year, as equipment and supplies are committed in August, September and October.

Erickson recalled reducing balances in special education and capital outlay and said that could be a possibility this year as well.

Something Erickson has been working on with assistant superintendent Kyle Hayden is evaluating vacancies in the district and “how we might be able to consolidate positions and reduce costs through attrition,” Erickson said.

— Shawn Linenberger contributed to this story.

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