GALENA, Kan. —
Brian Smith said he has continued to watch the Galena School District’s budget shrink over the past several years.
Smith, the superintendent, said the district is considered to be the poorest in Kansas and is frequently cited as an example when lawmakers in Topeka discuss funding for education.
“We’ve cut every department since we started seeing the cuts from the state,” Smith said.
The district’s teaching staff has dropped from 70 to 58. And Smith now does double duty as the high school counselor.
“With everyone else doing more, it was only right if I do more, too,” he said.
In nearby Baxter Springs, Superintendent Dennis Burke said that while his district has kept its teachers, it has cut other positions and has reduced spending on school and custodial supplies.
Burke said having quality teachers is the top priority for the district, which is why it hasn’t cut any teaching positions. One of the district’s main priorities, he said, is keeping a low student-teacher ratio.
“Everything else after that depends on the situations,” Burke said, adding that the staff has remained optimistic despite budget cuts.
“Unfortunately, the cost of educating kids continues to go up,” he said. “The revenue to meet those costs has not kept up with inflation.”
And that’s what’s at the heart of a lawsuit in Kansas that is being watched around the country.
Four Kansas school districts as well as the parents of more than 30 children are suing the state, claiming it has fallen short of constitutional guarantees to adequately fund K-12 education. That has set the stage for a state Supreme Court decision — due any day — on whether funding should be increased.
All states have language in their constitutions providing for public schools. But Kansas’ courts have been specific in the past in spelling out how the state must carry out that responsibility.
After a round of litigation that ended in 2006, Kansas schools were promised large increases in spending. But when the national economy slumped, the state began backtracking. The state’s basic aid to schools per pupil for the 2015 fiscal year is projected at $3,852, down from a peak of $4,433 before the latest recession.
Overall, Kansas spending on education is down 16.5 percent since 2008, according to a study by the nonprofit research organization Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.
Gov. Sam Brownback and legislators since 2011 have cut the state’s basic aid to schools by nearly 6 percent to help close a budget shortfall and prop up the teachers’ pension system. In 2012, Brownback also won passage of a $3.9 billion personal income tax cut plan designed to stimulate the economy.
School districts complained about the impact of the spending cuts and the tax cuts, and said the money was needed to bolster schools.
Brownback insists that the tax cuts are vital to expanding the state’s economy, saying the plan will generate more revenues for public services, including education. In his State of the State speech last month, Brownback lashed out against any court intervention.
“The constitution empowers the Legislature — the people’s representatives — to fund our schools,” he said. Some conservatives have hinted that the state might defy an adverse ruling by the high court, which could lead to more legal wrangling.
Brownback dismisses arguments that his tax cuts come at the expense of public schools. He says schools remain strong, ACT scores are above the national average, and graduation rates are rising.
He also recently proposed a new fourth-grade reading program and full state funding for all-day kindergarten.
Statewide, other school superintendents say they have been forced to make choices similar to those in Galena and Baxter Springs. Classrooms have become more crowded, and staffs have been trimmed. Districts across the state have dropped after-school programs and increased fees.
Meanwhile, a lower court in Kansas, ruling on the lawsuit by the four districts and the parents, said lawmakers must increase per-pupil funding from the fiscal 2015 allocation of $3,852 to nearly $4,500. The lawsuit, which the Kansas Supreme Court is reviewing, asks for an additional $440 million for K-12 education.
A Kansas Supreme Court ruling that upholds the lower court and requires more funding could embolden parents and educators in other states to challenge cuts in school spending.
On the other hand, a ruling for the state would be seen as a favorable signal for conservatives pushing to shrink state government. More than two dozen states have Republican governors and legislatures, and many have pushed to stimulate their economies with tax cuts.
“It is playing out and will continue to play out in other states,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Newark, N.J.-based Education Law Center, which filed a brief in the Kansas case. “What happens in this round of litigation in Kansas will have implications.”
State Sen. Jake LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, said most people expect the Kansas Supreme Court will tell legislators to put hundreds of millions of dollars into K-12 education.
“We don’t have the money,” he said. “That’s the point.”
LaTurner said he thinks it is inappropriate for the Supreme Court to force him to vote for more funding.
“The issue comes down to principle for me,” he said. “I think it’s an overreach. My vote belongs to me; it belongs to my district.”
LaTurner said there are not a lot of practical things that could be done if the Supreme Court orders an increase in school funding and legislators defy its ruling.
State Rep. Julie Menghini, D-Pittsburg, said she also believes the courts could order the state to beef up school funding.
“What (the courts) said last time was, based on the evidence presented ... you are not providing suitable funding for education in Kansas,” she said. “I don’t know how they could come to any other conclusion at this point.”
Menghini said the courts have looked at three studies that all concluded education is not receiving adequate funding.
She said there will be a “huge outcry” that the courts are usurping power from legislators if the ruling says more money needs to be put into education.
Burke, the Baxter Springs superintendent, said he also hates to see school funding decided by the court system.
“We elect representatives to make those decisions for us in Topeka,” he said.
But, he added, there is a conflict regarding what is considered “suitable” funding for education.
Smith, the Galena superintendent, said that when it comes to creating a plan to fund education, there’s a “lack of vision” in Topeka.
“If we can get kids a quality education, it’s going to cost society much less than if we don’t give them a quality education,” he said. “What we should do is come up with a long-range plan to fund education properly.”
Menghini said there are children in Southeast Kansas with “additional speed bumps in their road,” whether they come from low-income homes or speak English as a second language.
“We’re charged with educating all of them,” she said. “We don’t want to, and we are not allowed to, leave any of them behind.”
Menghini said it might take three to five years, but legislators need to put a plan in motion and hope that future legislators will follow up with it.
“The reality is, I hope, that at least on the House side, we have enough reasonable Republicans and Democrats who will say, ‘No, this is not the way to go,’” she said. “We need to figure out a plan to start replacing the money that was supposed to go to education.”
Smith said teachers are doing all they can to prevent budget cuts from having a direct impact on students. Everyone is working harder, he said, because educators want what is best for children.
“But you can only overwork people for so long,” he said.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.