“I don’t understand why school administrators are dismissing teachers when schools have such big reserves,” state the adherents of the no-more-taxes pro-business lobby. The first part of their statement is correct: they don’t understand. But schools don’t have fat reserves. The 293 Kansas superintendents are not dismissing teachers just to get public sympathy for raising taxes. Most school budgets are drained, and with over 80 percent tied up in personnel, dismissing school employees is the only recourse.
Critics decry that K-12 education takes up over half the state budget. That is correct. Public education is every state’s biggest responsibility and every state’s single biggest expense. From the beginning of statehood, Kansans invested in their schools and that quality echoes today.
Kansas schools operate on revenue from the state general fund and local property taxes. Along with federal Title funding, there can be up to two dozen additional “silos” of money, each with its own special restrictions. Capital funds for building facilities are restricted to that purpose. Some folks do not understand that when state funds were provided for a building, they cannot be diverted to pay for salaries. And when local folks vote on a bond issue for a specified purpose, it cannot be diverted unless they vote to do so in another election.
And a few schools were able to save over the years and set aside some discretionary funds for a “rainy day.” Much of that funding has now been spent to meet commitments this last year when state cuts were made after contracts were awarded.
However, some schools have no reserve funds to fall back on at all. Last year, Kansas revenues began falling short of meeting the 1st-of-the-month state payment to schools. The KSDE surveyed schools for those that could not temporarily transfer monies to make payroll in mid-December and worked with the state budget office to pass through a earlier-than-others payout to schools that were flat broke.
Another misleading figure is the comparison of school funding before and after the Kansas Supreme Court directed an increase in school funding. Kansas was failing to support K-12 education. Part of the increase went to teacher salaries and part to improve school programs. Today, Kansas teachers remain paid at a level that is 38th in the nation, the same as before the raises. Without the increase, Kansas would have fallen far behind.
Is Kansas top-heavy with school administrators and non-teachers? Some states have legislated caps on the percentage of non-instructional staff. It has not improved their schools. Kansas ranks in the same range of instructional staffing as most other states.
If you want to eliminate administrative positions, you must eliminate their duties. A large district needs a competent manager of finances and a skilled overseer of school bus transportation—assistant superintendents with critical duties. If you want to eliminate the paraprofessionals who serve special needs students, you can’t just dismiss them—you will have to change federal laws that mandate those services. I would love to shut down the external assessments and return testing to the teachers’ hands, eliminating assessment positions in larger districts. But we can’t do that without changing the state QPA and federal No Child Left Behind laws.
Critics who claim schools should divert restricted funds to cover the shortfall claim to represent the Kansas business community. However, if Kansas schools were permitted by legislative action to raid those funds, the consequences would be disastrous. In a few years, with public schools essentially bankrupt, legitimate Kansas businessmen would be the first to point out such gross mismanagement. California did it, and their state bonds are barely above junk status. Most Kansans are glad we are not California.
Two economic estimates of the “cost” in Kansas jobs (from raising the sales tax for 3 years versus cutting school funding and keeping taxes flat) show amazingly narrow differences measured by the costs of job loss.
But Kansas settlers had no difficulty making a decision between short term private gain and long term investment in their children.