Official defends school district’s plight

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June 10, 2015 - 12:00 AM

A full-page advertisement from the Kansas Policy Institute has local school officials steaming mad with the Register.
“I understand the importance of freedom of speech,” Jack Koehn, superintendent of schools, said Tuesday afternoon. “But their numbers are misleading, to say the least.”
The ad contends Kansas schools are flush with money and that school superintendents across the state are trying to fool voters into thinking otherwise.
For Iola’s USD 257 schools, its budget continues to shrink, despite greater contributions by the state.
“That’s where they spin the numbers,” Koehn said of the Kansas Policy Institute, a spin-off of Koch Industries.
While state funding has increased, local funding to schools has decreased.
This change in funding came about when earlier this year legislators complied with a court ruling to more equitably fund school districts across the state, which meant an increase in equalization aid. That did not mean more money for public schools, but only that it came from different “pots.” Districts in poor areas such as Iola and Humboldt witnessed a decrease in their property taxes — $525,971 for USD 257 — while the state picked up the difference.
KPI’s advertisements, meanwhile, took that figure to make it look as if it were increased state aid. Again, it was merely money that came out of state, not local, coffers.
The year 2015 got off to a bad start for state educators when Gov. Sam Brownback enacted more than $50 million in cuts to education. Because school districts operate on a fiscal year, beginning July 1, these mid-year cuts forced school districts to change adopted budgets, contracts for staff and planned programs. These are the budget cuts school districts have been discussing all spring.
That’s not all. Under Senate Bill 7, funding for state schools has been not only frozen through block grants — despite 4 percent inflation and an increase of 7,000 students statewide — but also cut.
Iola schools stand to lose an additional $42,430 over the next two years under current legislation, Koehn said. Its current budget is about $9.409 million, down from $9.444 million from two years ago. USD 257 has about 1,250 students.
And if the legislature fails to pass a budget and Gov. Brownback makes 6.2 percent across-the-board cuts?
“That would be truly devastating,” Koehn said, adding it would mean a loss of $627,484 to the district.

A SCHOOL district’s biggest expense is its employees, said Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards, from his Topeka office this morning. “This includes not only teachers and school leaders, but student support staff, cooks, bus drivers, custodians and others.”
Up until recently, the salaries for those in public education have been on par, if not exceeded, what private sector employees have been paid.
Today, however, Kansas teacher salaries “have falled into the bottom 10 states,” Tallman said.
Any increase in state aid for education has been directed to the state’s pension program — KPERS — and cannot be used for regular operating costs, Tallman said.

A BETTER measure of how well a student’s education is funded is the Base State Aid Per Pupil formula. In 2008, Kansas provided $4,433 per pupil. Today, not accounting for inflation, that figure is $3,852. Add inflation, and the state would be providing $4,871 if it had stayed on track.
According to Tallman, Kansas schools receive almost $800 per pupil less than than the national average, ranking 27th out of the 50 states.
Koehn figures entities like the Kansas Policy Institute “have to make an enemy for the public to target,” and public education is it.
“They want people to think we are seeing more money than ever and that their tax dollars are being wasted. That simply is not true.”

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