Small Kansas School Districts Anxious About State Funding

Mar 1, 2017

There’s been an awful lot of discussion on what Kansas’s new school funding formula will look like and whether the Legislature will still make cuts to public schools mid-year.

Nothing has been decided, which has educators in the state both a little optimistic and a little scared.

On a recent morning Allison Theno was combining math and penguins to teach her 18 kindergartners at Basehor Elementary to subtract.

This is Theno’s first year teaching. She is one of seven new teachers Basehor-Linwood Superintendent David Howard hired last year. “We’re a growing district in southern Leavenworth County. Our district has grown by 200 students over the last two years.”

Over those last two years, the state’s budget problem has also grown. Right now nobody knows how Kansas will find $300 million to fix it for this year.

But one option is to cut public education funding and that means Howard and other superintendents would face very hard decisions.

“It does keep me up at night,” says Howard. 

He says the board and administrators in Basehor have already talked about what happens should lawmakers decide to cut funds from schools mid-year.  “A couple of things have been mentioned. We talked about closing school a few days early. Basically, we’ll have to spend a lot of our contingency if we’re cut.”

It would be a little easier to find the money in a big district like Shawnee Mission with 27,000 students and a budget of $300 million.

But Basehor is small. Just 2,500 students and a budget of $14 million for the whole district.

Howard says he’s already spent down much of Basehor’s bank account to pay for Ms. Theno and his other new teachers.

Beyond the possibility of mid-year cuts, Basehor’s superintendent is worried about whether the new funding formula the Legislature has to come up with will mean more money over the next couple of years. If not, he sees trouble.

“Our class sizes will start to creep up. We’ll be looking at, instead of hiring a teacher we may hire an aide to help in a classroom with 24, 26 kindergartners. We hope that’s not the case.”

If the Legislature makes mid-year cuts to public education the Bonner Springs-Edwardsville District may have to end the school year early.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3

The Bonner Springs-Edwardsville District a little farther east of Kansas City is in the same boat.

A district with a mix of suburbs and pastureland, Bonner Springs has added about 200 students in the last three years for a total of almost 2,800.

But, for the last two years, funding has been flat because state dollars have come as block grants.

If the Legislature cuts those allocations before July 1, Superintendent Dan Brungardt says teachers would still be paid because they’re under contract. But bus drivers, cooks and custodians, they would lose out.

“Those people are working class individuals and if you cut them short this year they may not come back next year,” Brungardt says.

And in a small district like Bonner Springs, where Brungardt makes almost all the hires himself, that’s hard. “It’s a very close community. So when you start talking about things like that it’s more difficult because, you know, it’s not just a number. It’s actually a name. It’s a person.”

It certainly may not come to that for Brungardt and other superintendents. The most optimistic view is that most of the Legislature has no appetite for cutting public education.

That’s what David Howard in Basehor hopes anyway. “I really believe our Legislature, they seem very reasonable this year, I really believe they’re going to come up with a plan. I think there are other options to them that are available without cutting us.”

But at a time when most districts would prefer to be working on how many teachers to hire or what programs to add next year, they’re worried about how to simply get through this school year and wondering where state funding will land.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service and is host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.

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