Manhattan schools affected by court decision

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Data from Kansas Association of School Boards | Graphic by Audrey Hockersmith

The Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling of the state’s inequitable education funding impacts the Manhattan school district’s financial future.

The court ruled on Feb. 11 that the block grant funding law is unconstitutional. According to Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution, the Legislature must “make suitable provision for the finance of the educational interests of the state.

In March 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that Article 6 includes both “adequacy” and “equity” components, according to KMUW 89.1, Wichita. This interpretation means the Legislature must ensure enough funding for a suitable education and the educational opportunities are equal throughout the state.

The court’s decision only addressed the equity part of the block grant’s constitutionality. KMUW reported that the court decided the 2015 block grant legislation “increased wealth-based disparities among districts” and resulted in a loss of about $54 million of funding for poorer districts and also financially hurt wealthier districts.

“The way (education funding) was modified (with the block grant) had a basically dis-equalizing effect in that it would take more tax dollars in a poorer property wealth district to fill in the gap than it would in a district that had greater property tax wealth,” Lew Faust, director of business services for USD 383, said.

Faust said the block grant funding law is still in effect. The court is simply requiring that the Legislature change the law to make it equitable. Faust also said the court put a stay on some of the other decisions or recommendations that were a part of the previous court decision.

“If (the court) would have thrown it all out, of course it could have thrown school funding and finance into chaos and would have disrupted the system,” Faust said. “So I think it was a judicious effort on their part to try and keep schools open and operating through the rest of the current fiscal year.”

Fixing the law will start with the House Education Committee, Sydney Carlin, Democratic Manhattan representative, said.

“I think they should start right away because it’s going to take a lot of input from a lot of people to do this,” Carlin said.

Robert Shannon, superintendent of USD 383, said there are “a lot of parties involved in trying to determine what will happen next.” Those include, he said, the Legislature, the governor’s office, local school districts, the state board of education, the Kansas Supreme Court and various professional associations, including the Kansas Association of School Boards and the teacher’s association.

“I don’t think there is anyone specifically who can tell you where we are going … I think that’s part of the ambiguity, or a large part of the ambiguity, is it is not one entity that’s leading,” Shannon said. “It’s an interplay.”

Faust said the school district will operate “business as usual” with the funds they were authorized to use for this year under the block grant, and they don’t anticipate any change in that. He said they assume that any change to the law will go into effect next fiscal year.

The uncertainty with the funding law makes it more difficult for the district to plan, Faust said. The later in the legislative session that school finance is dealt with, the less time the school district will have to respond and make adjustments if there is a change in budget authority.

“When you are constantly in a perpetual state of, ‘We don’t know,’ it makes it difficult to plan for general operations and definitely to do much long-range planning to try and meet the needs of your students,” Faust said.

Shannon said the planning for the next school year is already in progress, including budgeting, staffing, curriculum decisions and textbooks, instruction materials and technology purchases.

Faust said it is normal for the school district to already be working on the next year’s budget.

“We have to,” Faust said. “That’s common in the way our cycle works because the Legislature, many times it’s late in the legislative session before they would make a final decision on school finance because it’s such a big piece of the overall budget.”

Faust said the district must plan using the known variables and assume the process is based on the same principles as previous years.

“If the rules of the game change,” Faust said, then adjustments are made. He said the two-year nature of the block grant leads to an assumption that next year’s funding will be equivalent to this year’s.

It is not ideal, Faust said, for the Legislature to typically deal with school financing so late in the session, but it is just the way the system in Kansas has always worked.

Faust said the old funding formula would be a good place for the Legislature to start, even if it is not the eventual solution.

“The court had found the previous system, the previous finance formula and the previous way of distributing funding in terms of these two funds, or the equity piece, to be constitutional,” Faust said. “So it seems logical that at least the first step would be to go back to the way it was distributed and the way the formula was calculated for that before. But there are other ways that it could be done, but whatever is crafted has to try and level the playing field.”

Faust said the purpose of the old school finance formula was to equalize the tax burden and the educational opportunity for all school districts in the state.

“The whole intent of the finance law when it was redone back in 1992 was to try and make school finance equal for all students across the state, regardless of whether they lived in Johnson County or if they lived in some other county that didn’t have near the wealth that Johnson County did, so that the educational opportunity wasn’t dictated by their zip code,” Faust said.

Carlin said the best option she knows is an adequately funded finance formula, but she wants the House Education Committee to seek out better ideas and analyze the systems of other states.

“From my perspective, or from most school officials’ perspective, the formula was fine, it was just never funded fully,” Faust said. “And if it would have been funded fully, we probably would have been fine. It’s just as we went through the Great Recession and economic difficulties in the state and so on, (the Legislature) would change it or cut back on the base state aid and that type of thing, and that’s what created problems.”

Shannon, like Carlin and Faust, supported a finance formula.

“I would like to see us collectively land a new school finance formula that is adequate and equitable,” Shannon said. “And I am going to be consistent with where I have been for several years, in that the adequacy amount must be something comparable to where we were in 2010 or 2011 before the significant reductions in base funding per student occurred.”

Shannon, who is retiring June 30, said he will still be concerned about public school funding after he is no longer superintendent.

“It will be different,” Shannon said. “Nevertheless, I am concerned about where public schools and state finances head. As a former educator, always an educator, citizen of a community school district and grandfather of a child who is in a Kansas public school.”

Marvin Wade, the current superintendent of Marshalltown Community School District in Marshalltown, Iowa, will start as USD 383’s superintendent on July 1.

“I am or will be in communication with the next superintendent on major matters that I believe either will be in progress or will be facing him shortly after he starts in the office,” Shannon said. “Other things I know he’s aware of, the supreme court matter that has happened.”

Faust said it is important for the Legislature to act sooner rather than later.

“We hope that there is some action that is taken by the Legislature in the next couple of months that will meet and satisfy the equity test so that there is no chance of disrupting the educational process and endangering of schools, not only next year — that would be absolute worst-case scenario,” Faust said.

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Jason Tidd graduated from Kansas State University's Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May 2017. He was the spring 2017 editor-in-chief, fall 2016 news editor and spring 2016 assistant news editor. While at K-State, Jason played baritone in the Pride of Wildcat Land marching band.