Shawnee County school board presidents on Monday said their districts are bracing for midyear cuts to their budgets, and that the fairness and adequacy of state aid for schools is high on their list of concerns.
In their first effort to present a unified, county-wide voice on public education matters to Topeka-area lawmakers, representatives of the five school districts based in Shawnee County said Kansas should fund early childhood education and full-day kindergarten.
"Our best tool that we have for eliminating the achievement gap is early childhood education," Patrick Woods, of Topeka Unified School District 501, told the gathering of 10 Republican and Democratic lawmakers. "Preschool really is the new kindergarten."
The state pays for half-day kindergarten, but most Kansas school districts operate an all-day model. Aid for preschool is more limited.
On the matter of administrative structure, local superintendents, who also attended the meeting, were asked by Rep. Annie Tietze, D-Topeka, how they answer questions from the public about why the county has five districts.
"The districts are organized around communities of interest," said Marty Stessman, of Shawnee Heights USD 450. "The broader you get in that, the more diluted it gets. That’s what happens with representative government."
Silver Lake USD 372 superintendent Tim Hallacy said the current system lets his district stay "laser-focused" on the needs of local students.
"It also lends itself to a lot more innovation," he said. "Everyone complains about large bureaucracy and the inflexibility of that. You have 286 innovative, small areas that are in tune with the needs of the communities and constituencies they serve. And so that is a huge advantage."
Two hundred eighty-six refers to the number of school districts in Kansas.
Asked after the meeting, Rep. Dick Jones, R-Topeka, said he has wondered about the number of Shawnee County districts.
"I’ve questioned that off and on, but I haven’t really studied it," he said. "It may be exactly what we need. Maybe not."
Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, suggested schools may be overly concerned about the reliability of state aid this year and the potential for sudden changes.
"As I understand it, (as) the bill that we ran last session was, we protected all of the schools from the allotment process," said Highland, who chairs the House education committee. "Based on the information I’m seeing now about the revenue stream and all that, I don’t think they’d need to have a big worry at this point, unless something drastic happens."
But Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, who sits on the Senate budget committee, said funding cuts are a real risk.
"I think their concerns are real," she said. "We just have to do what we can to mitigate the damage."
Last school year, the Legislature rolled back state aid by more than $50 million late in the fiscal year. Lawmakers simultaneously passed a block grant formula that largely locked in funding for two fiscal years, severing the link between student headcount and aid.
Jim Gartner, president of the Auburn-Washburn USD 437 school board, said this presents a problem when schools grow in enrollment.
"The cost is there," he said, adding that Auburn-Washburn gains scores of students annually. "The funding is not there."
Lawmakers scrapped Kansas’ two-decade-old school finance formula last spring and set a goal of writing a new one within two years.
Woods said the new system should take into account that some districts have less ability to raise money locally than others, because of the variations in local taxable property. If the new formula doesn’t address this and instead pushes schools to rely more on local taxes, he said, it will exacerbate inequality.
"None of us want that in our county," he said.
Other priorities the school board presidents raised with lawmakers included ensuring schools can hire retired educators — particularly amid shortages of applicants for certain jobs — and urging the Legislature to backtrack on a new tax credit program that funds private school tuition.
"Any school that receives public funds must meet state and federal accountability standards, provide programs and services required of public schools," said Eric Deitcher, of Shawnee Heights USD 450. "We think that’s a fair statement to make."
In addition to presenting a common agenda to lawmakers, Shawnee County school board presidents began meeting once a month this fall to discuss topics important to all five districts.