Building administrators discussed staffing for the 2016-2017 school year in late February. They planned, considered and debated funding for programs and teachers. However, there was one piece of information they had to work without: how much money East would receive from the state next fall.
The uncertainty was due to the Kansas Supreme Court decision on Feb. 11 that stated the way public schools were being funded was unconstitutional. The court ruled that the budget’s current funding formula, known as the block grant system, infringed on Article 6 of the state constitution because of the unequal distribution of funds. The block grant is a set amount of money provided by the government for local systems to use over a range of school services, from buying supplies to running buses.
The ruling said that the legislature had to have a new formula finalized and approved by June 30, or public schools will not open for the 2016-2017 school year. Sophomore Denny Rice believes that if states can’t pay to keep schools open and pay teachers adequately, the quality of our education will be greatly affected.
The block grant was set to run for two years while the legislature created a new funding plan, which they have yet to accomplish. Until a new formula is approved, each one of the 286 public school districts in Kansas is trying to estimate what funds they will have, and when they will know this number.
In an education board meeting on Feb. 22, SMSD superintendent Dr. Jim Hinson described the best and worst case scenarios to expect for next year’s budget. That includes losses ranging from $4-8 million, as well as the possibility of teacher layoffs and rising class sizes in the 2016-2017 school year.
“So $4 million we’re already in the hole to start with, that we have to reallocate,” Hinson told the Board of Education. “I do not see any scenario where we will see an increase in revenue…The likelihood that we will lose millions of dollars we are currently receiving is pretty high.”
The district is currently looking at where they can reallocate funds from the equipment and supplies portion of the budget to the staffing section in order to avoid cutting staff members, according to Dr. Rick Atha, the Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Support for SMSD. Though after they go through the equipment section, there is a good chance they will have to dip into the staffing budget as well, Atha explained.
East Associate Principal Jeremy Higgins also believes the budget could affect how many teachers will be hired.
“Around 85 percent of the operating budget revolves around staff members,” Higgins said. “If you’re losing $8 million in funding, there’s a good chance that will cut into staffing.”
With the millions that SMSD could lose, comes the reconsideration of Signature Programs like the IB program next year, explained IB director Monique Goodeyon. Other programs like the Broadmoor program, the Biotechnology program, Project Lead the Way and the Legal Studies program will also all be reconsidered. The district wants to make sure it can afford the programs, as well as make sure the programs are reaching as many students as possible, explained Goodeyon.
This year, most teachers gained an extra class where they once had a planning period, which meant a 15 percent increased workload, according to Linda Sieck, the Shawnee Mission President of the Educational Association. Sieck explains that this, on top of increased class sizes, results in additional papers to grade and less one-on-one time with students – with no salary increase. Goodeyon also recognizes the additional time she has to put into grading tests and homework assignments.
“Because of the funding cuts, there are things happening in the building that kids don’t necessarily realize,” Goodeyon said. “All teachers have put in hours of more time every week.”
Increasing student body sizes along with the inability to keep up with the inflation of the economy is in part to why the block grant was ruled as inequitable.
“If we had kept up with the cost of inflation, today we could be spending $6,400 per pupil instead of $3,800,” Republican Senator Melissa Rooker said. “We are several thousand dollars off the base level, not even accounting for weightings.”
The block grant system also didn’t account for the additional weightings that less fortunate districts needed, according to Mary Sinclair, the Legislative Chair for East PTSA. These weightings accounted for differences in the cost of educating kids based on a variety of factors, like special education, learning the English language or living in poverty. Students that live greater than 2.5 miles away from school also have an additional weighting for the busing cost.
Prior to the block grant system, a more complex formula was in place from 1992 up until 2015. According to Atha, the previous formula was said to be “too complicated” for the state to keep up with.
Rooker believes that people think the old formula is complicated because it involves a lot of calculation, when in actuality the weightings are just calculated through a computer.
“I will be fighting very hard to put a formula back in place that responds to changing demographics and operates like our old one did,” Rooker said.
Supporters of the block grant system explain that the total amount of money being provided to districts is the highest it has been in the history of Kansas at $13,300 statewide, according to an email from Republican Senator Jeff Melcher. While the total amount of money has grown, the number of expenditures this total includes has grown as well.
“[Legislators] are looking at the total of all funds that flow to schools and the budget line item education,” Rooker said. “Within that line item, there’s money going to sources that schools cannot access to operate the building and populate classrooms with teachers, materials and programs.”
The block grant changed the way the state accounts for some of the dollars schools receive, according to Rooker. Money from The State of Kansas Retirement System for Public Employees (KPERS) and bond measures passed by school districts are qualified as state aid for education.
Not only is next year’s budget uncertain, but districts could potentially face another round of cuts when April revenues come in.
“The fact that districts don’t know what to expect is a real problem,” Rooker said. “There are budget cuts to come before this year is over. I think there’s real concern and uncertainty for schools right now wondering if there will be another round of cuts before the school year is complete.”