A continuing shortfall in school funding is going to leave many Kansas rural schools no other choice.
At their January meeting, the State Board of Education approved the disorganization of West Solomon County USD 213 and its attachment to Norton USD 211. Kansas had a stable 303 Unified School Districts (USDs) for decades, but our small rural schools are now consolidating at an increasing pace. Kansas is down to 293 USDs and this KSBE approval makes that 292 this coming July.
The connection between falling revenue and consolidation seems to be lost on some in Topeka. Some lobbyists still contend that K-12 education is a fat cat that can live on a skinnier diet.
Their first argument was that schools could tap over a billion in reserves. That argument has lost steam as the public realized that nearly all that revenue was in committed bonds, etc. that should not be diverted. There was a small amount of discretionary revenue squirreled away for a rainy day, and that was mostly in affluent districts. With the mid-year funding shortfall, those districts will exhaust their safety net in a short time. Many rural districts have nothing to fall back on.
The second argument was that schools are still operating after the current cuts, so they didn’t need their earlier higher budget. But as school boards across the state hold meetings on closing buildings inside their district, cutting positions, increasing class sizes, laying off paras and teachers, foregoing new textbooks and buses, etc., that argument rang hollow.
Nevertheless, we are now hearing how schools should still be doing fine because the State Supreme
Court ordered a funding increase a few years back, and we have not quite decreased funding to that pre-Court level.
But anyone who has actually stepped inside the public school classroom both then and now knows that there have been substantial changes in enrollment, mandated programs (especially No Child Left Behind), educational technology costs, inflation for all goods and services, and much more.
Without the Court mandated increase, not only would Kansas have fallen behind in education, but the consolidations that we are seeing accelerate today would have begun earlier.
For those who think they can preserve their school from consolidation when the money isn’t enough, let’s revisit the processes. There are actually three ways USDs change.
Regular consolidation involves two school districts merging into one when their constituencies approve by a majority vote.
A second change is a land transfer, where a portion of one district is transferred to another district.
The third is to disorganize a whole district and attach its land to one or more adjacent districts. (This is what was just approved for West Solomon County USD in an amiable agreement.)
Neither of the last two require a public ballot.
What can a school district do when revenues no longer pay the bills? A no-fund mill levy is one futile route. The only other option is one of the above consolidations.
Anyone who advocates further cuts in K-12 education funding is in effect supporting and promoting the extensive consolidation of many Kansas schools.