Supts. frustrated by state funding failure

The Kansas legislative session ended last week after setting a record for the number of days meeting for the closing session.

According to House Rep. Don Dahl, it was a “frustrating year” for legislators. Area school superintendents say the work done by lawmakers has left them financially frustrated about the future of their school districts.

While Gov. Bill Graves proposed an education fund increase of $110 per student, legislators approved an increase of only $50, raising the base funding to $3,870.

“There just wasn’t any more money,” Dahl said. “We saw that the economy is softening, and that is true also in Kansas.”

He said his colleagues in the House “looked under every rock and tree to find money,” but it just wasn’t there.

“It was either raise taxes or go to slot machines-and that was voted down several years ago,” Dahl said.

According to Gordon Mohn, USD 410 superintendent, the real issue is that the House of Representatives predetermined they weren’t going to raise taxes.

“The proposed tax increase of 0.2 of 1 percent sales tax was up for discussion, and the House voted it down,” Mohn said. “This would have been an additional 20 cents per $100 of groceries, and I would be willing to pay that.”

Mohn said the financial situation in the Hillsboro-Lehigh-Durham district is the most dismal he has seen in the 10 years he has been superintendent. In order for the system to continue to work, the board will have to look at making substantial cuts or finding ways to increase the revenue.

“This year the cost of energy was $75,000 over budget,” he cited as one example of how the costs of education have risen.

“If Rep. Dahl and Sen. Emler are in touch with their constituency, and this what the people want, we need to be reflecting on this,” he said.

Gerry Henderson, superintendent of USD 408 for Marion and Florence, shares Mohn’s frustration.

“The increase given us will provide Marion school with a 1.3 percent increase in new money, and I don’t know any businesses whose expenses haven’t exceeded that,” he said.

The increase will bring $50,000 into the Marion-Florence district.

Henderson said Marion’s Board of Education will have to consider increasing the local option budget.

Several years ago, based upon state and federal studies, the board agreed to maintain a recommended 17-to-1 student to teacher ratio in the elementary grades.

According to Henderson, to maintain that ratio, one additional teacher is needed in the elementary school next fall.

“There goes $30,000 in salary and benefits,” he said.

“On the average, Marion High School offers 20 to 25 fewer courses compared to most other schools our size across the state,” Henderson said. “For example, we offer 80 to 85 classes Hillsboro offers 105 to 110.”

Henderson felt lawmakers left only one option for some school districts, including Marion.

“That’s for the boards of education to increase local option budgets or supplemental general funds,” He said. “Although we do get some monies back from state aid for the local budget, the big percentage of it falls on local taxpayers and the personal property tax.”

Besides local funding worries, Henderson is concerned college students are not looking at going into education because of low starting salaries.

Tom Alstrom, superintendent for the Peabody-Burns district, agrees with Henderson’s assessment.

“I am frustrated that education has not kept up with the cost of living,” Alstrom said.

Like Hillsboro and Marion, Alstrom’s district is losing money through increased costs of living and a decline in enrollment.

“Our district is going to have to do some work with the tax base and review some of the programs,” he said.

Alstrom also said he felt legislators were trying to shift the burden to local counties, and pointed out Marion County is not a wealthy county.

“Ultimately,” he said, “the student is the one affected by these financial decisions, for good or for bad.”

Demitri Evancho, superintendent for Centre, also faces a declining enrollment. He said in his 10 years with the district, student numbers have fluctuated from around 280 to a little more than 300 students.

With the increase approved by the state, Evancho said, “We are not going to show any growth, only one-fourth of 1 percent, and that’s only if our enrollment holds.”

The increase for Centre, based on a $2 million budget will be $5,000, which Evancho says is “almost nil increase.”

He added: “In order to maintain current growth in student achievement, school programs, school improvement and in-service training for teachers, we are going to have to increase our local option budget.”

Evancho said besides the rising costs of energy, the district’s casualty/liability property insurance has doubled its premium from $27,000 to $55,000.

He said his position as superintendent is that he will not “carve up” a program at present because students are starting to show favorable effects of other recent improvements.

“Student achievement is increasing in areas that satisfy us, and we cannot roll back what we are doing because of one year’s action by the legislature.”

Chet Roberts, Goessel District superintendent, said he has two main concerns about the financial issue.

“I don’t think we will have to tax,” he said, “but there will be some people who have to do that, and I think there is an abdication from the state to the local district.

“The House voted ‘no’ to a tax increase, but in actuality there is going to be an increase to some people.”

Second, Roberts is concerned about the overall impact the financial changes and cuts will have on education in the future.

He said his district was able to offer a raise of slightly more than 3 percent to teachers, but only because positions were cut.

“I can see the possibility of more cuts down the road,” he said.

Roberts said he does not feel the legislature created these hardships on purpose.

“They felt like they were doing their job,” he said.

To those asking for a tax increase, Dahl said, “The House’s message to the Senate was that we have to learn to live within our budget.”

Dahl also said according to a study of the National Education Association, Kansas ranks second of seven surrounding states for teacher salaries, and is ranked No. 1 in per-pupil spending.

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