Coalition of Innovative School Districts hears budget concerns

By Kansas Association of School Boards
November 21, 2014

Public school officials Thursday expressed concern Gov. Sam Brownback may propose taking funds held by school districts in reserve to help bridge the state budget gap.

The idea has cropped up over the past few years, and more recently in discussions before the K-12 Student Proficiency and Efficiency Commission. In fact, the K-12 Commission recently deadlocked 4-4 on a proposal to develop standards on how much districts could hold in reserve.

In the past, some legislators have complained that some school districts are amassing huge balances while at the same time telling the state they need more school funding.

School superintendents, however, have said they use cash balances as a management tool to pay bills and smooth over unforeseen dips in revenue. During the Great Recession, state aid payments to districts were often delayed, and some fear with the current state revenue shortfall, payments could be delayed again.

On Thursday, at a meeting of the Coalition of Innovative School Districts, board chairman Randy Watson said school districts sometimes use reserves for long-term plans.

And Bev Mortimer, who is a member of the Innovative School Districts board, K-12 Commission, and superintendent of the Concordia school district, said recently she relied on her reserves when the Sept. 20 enrollment count showed a significant drop in free lunch students, which reduced her budget.

Eileen Hawley, a spokeswoman for Brownback, declined to address what she called speculation about using cash reserves to help solve the state budget problems and said the governor's team was putting together a budget plan that will be announced in the next couple of weeks.

According to revenue estimates announced earlier this month, officials face a $279 million gap between expenses and revenue for the current fiscal year that ends June 30. For the next fiscal year, there is another $436 million revenue shortfall.

Since public school education makes up approximately half of the state budget, some educators have said they fear any budget fix will tap into school finance.

At Thursday’s meeting of the Innovative School Districts board, officials discussed waivers of certain state education rules.

The Innovative School Districts board considers school districts that have applied to operate as innovative districts, which under state law, allows a limited number of districts to exempt themselves from many state laws, rules and regulations in exchange for presenting a plan to improve student achievement.

The board's recommendations on district applications for innovative status are then sent to the State Board of Education for final consideration.

So far, Blue Valley USD 229, Concordia USD 333, Hugoton USD 210, Kansas City USD 500 and McPherson USD 418 have been approved as innovative districts.

At Thursday's meeting, the board gave unanimous approval to waiving for innovative districts state rules that prevent school districts from paying students' class fees to take a course at a state-funded college. The payment could only be made if it would prove to be a cost savings for the district and if the course was not available in the school district. The board also unanimously approved waiving rules that prevent students from fulfilling their physical education requirement outside of school.

The board sent the more controversial issue about waiving certain teacher licensure requirements to a subcommittee of board members and school officials to work on a proposal for consideration at the coalition's next meeting, which will be Dec. 16 in Salina.

The board also recommended that Mortimer become the next chair of the board in January. The current chair, Watson, was recently selected by the State Board of Education to become the state education commissioner; a post he will takeover July 1.