Local officials weigh in on block grant proposal

By Nick Gosnell
March 13, 2015
Architectural Fotographics/Treanor Architects

The Kansas House of Representatives made final passage of House Sub for SB 7, the 'block grant' bill on Friday morning in Topeka. Mid Kansas Online gave local officials an opportunity to comment on the legislation.

Don Schroeder, Representative from Hesston, whose district includes Moundridge in McPherson County, and who voted against the measure, said, "It's not a terrible, horrible bill. There are a lot worse things that could happen. One of the main things that concerns me is that, with the block grant bill, most of the current weightings that we have go away. There are a few that stay, special ed is one of them that stays, but most of them go away."

Schroeder went on to explain why that isn't a good thing, and why it could really negatively affect rural schools.

Schroeder said, "One of the weightings that's really important to rural areas, and of course, we're a rural area, my district is very rural, is the low enrollment weighting. Rural schools get that, because there are many areas that have low enrollments, and because, even though they're a large area, they still have low enrollment, and so that's really important to the rural areas, and therefore, it's important to me. If that goes away, it's relatively likely that we'll never see low enrollment weighting again."

Les Mason, McPherson's Representative in the Kansas House, voted for the measure.

Mason explained, "I did a lot of consultation with colleagues that I trusted and predecessors and did a lot of research into the spreadsheets that we saw from the different districts. I had just come to the conclusion that the current funding formula needs updated and I really didn't talk to anybody in administration anywhere who disagreed with that. It was just a question of how are we going to get to that new funding formula."

Mason believed that in order for legislators to get serious about a new formula, the old one needed to go away.

Mason said, "The option here was for the block grants, and that was sort of a bridge, shall we say, The main thing we wanted was to have some certainty of funding for the schools and say, you're getting as much or more, as you did last year. Then, it provides some certainty for the legislature, as we try to fill this $600 million hole in our budget. It also provides sort of an endgame, because there's a two year limit on the block grant and we have to have the new formula in place for that."

Mason is counting on assistance from Dr. Randy Watson as he takes his new role in Topeka in shaping what the new formula might look like.

Mason said, "I know that our new Commissioner of Education, Dr. Randy Watson, will be instrumental in helping craft that new formula. I trust his judgment, very, very much."

For Steven Johnson, Representative from Ellsworth, who also has Lindsborg in his district, it was about a lack of flexibility in the block grant approach if there are fluctuations in enrollment.

Johnson said, "In the case of Ellsworth, we will graduate a class in the range of 30, and I believe we anticipate a Kindergarten class that approaches 80. A formula may be better suited to handle those enrollment changes and other things that invariably comes along. Certainly, we can handle it through amendment processes also, and I hope people would listen. However, as I open that up to all the possible concerns that we would have, that list could get very lengthy. For better or worse, a formulaic solution to the magnitude of issues that we have, may be a more robust approach."

Johnson would like to have seen the process toward a new formula get further along before seeking another solution.

Johnson said, "I'm a little afraid to jump off the ship before I start at least some effort at building the next one. I realize that nobody's really interested in building the next one until this one's gone. So, that's the Catch-22 that folks are in. It just concrens me how that process might move forward to be able to fully address the fact that education and other things are not static. How do we meet those needs over time?"

Despite the vote on Friday, any House member that voted for the proposal could move to reconsider and reignite debate on Monday. However, that motion can only happen once. If it is voted down, then the bill heads on to the Kansas Senate.