Schools prepared to fight for funding

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If the Kansas Legislature continues on its projected funding track through 2012, the state?s public school system as we know it will collapse.

That?s the grim assessment of USD 410 superintendent Steve Noble in response to a projected reduction in state aid for 2012 that is 22 percent below the amount passed into law in 2008 as the state?s minimum responsibility.

?There are districts that are shutting things down, going bare minimum of hours, going bare minimum on facilities, maintenance and grounds, and districts asking for state dollars to get through a pay period,? Noble said.

?Those things are becoming reality and if we continue on that (path), the system will implode.?

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Legal action

Concern for present and future school funding were key reasons the USD 410 board voted unanimously in October to join Schools for Fair Funding, a coalition of 74 districts that filed a lawsuit Monday to re-open the Montoy case and keep education funding at the level passed into law in 2008.

Talk of even more cuts in K-12 education as the 2010 legislative session opened Monday only gives credence to the need for the lawsuit, Noble said.

?We believe in what the constitution says, and we believe in it strong enough to say enough is enough,? he said.

Path to a budget battle

In spring 2008, the legislature passed a law setting the minimum basic state aid per public-school pupil at $4,492?in response to the state supreme court ruling that the state constitution requires adequate funding for K-12 education.

At the time, school districts were assured the designated amount was protected in a ?lock box? for budgeting purposes.

As Noble puts it: ?Somebody found the key and unlocked it.?

In response to state budget shortfalls since the recession hit in fall 2008, the base rate per student has been reduced four times, and currently stands at $4,012 following Gov. Mark Parkinson?s budget cuts Nov. 23 in response to lower revenue projections.

That?s an 11 percent reduction from what the legislature originally concluded was constitutionally required.

The governor said at the time he would not allow further cuts for K-12 education, and would look to increase revenue instead.

?That tells me he?s going to veto any bill that promises to cut more, and it would take a two-thirds vote to override it,? Noble said. ?But there are legislators who, we believe, don?t have the same view (as the governor) and will look at education as a big chunk of the budget that has to be looked at again.?

Funding for K-12 education currently takes 52 percent of the state?s discretionary budget.

Further troubling to Noble is that the state has used federal stimulus dollars to prop up its funding for education. Those dollars will be used up by the 2012 fiscal year.

?When that money runs out, we?ve got to make up the difference,? Noble said. ?We hope the governor is able to fend off further cuts; we hope that legislators stop reducing funding.?

Noble said even though there will be strong opposition to raising taxes, he is convinced ?the pie has to grow.? He said he is not in favor of putting a heavier load on the average taxpayer, but favors rescinding some of the tax exemptions the legislature enacted in the name of economic development.

For support, he cited the research done by Edward Hammond, president of Fort Hays State University.

?He did the math,? Noble said. ?If we voided all the exemption put into place over the past 10 years, but then reduced everybody?s state tax burden, we?d still be billions ahead of the game.?

Local impact

In response to the initial funding cuts instituted from February through July last year, USD 410 cut its operating budget by about $500,000 in preparation for the current school year. The cuts include a reduction of two teaching positions through early retirement.

With the governor?s Nov. 23 announcement of a reduction in state aid to $4,012, USD 410 will be required to cover another budget shortfall, this time in the range of about $150,000.

The impact of another funding reduction could have been worse, Noble said, except for the foresight of the board.

?That foresight has saved this district to the point to where we?re going to get through without renegotiating salaries, without shutting down early and closing our doors May 14, and doing other things (to reduce expenses),? he said.

Instead, the board will use $100,000 from its budget authority; the remaining $50,000 will come from the distict?s operating reserves.

As for the $100,000, ?It?s money we never anticipated receiving in the first place,? Noble said. ?But we needed to set the (budget) ceiling a little higher than we expect to need in case there?s a need for more tax money, or more kids come in than we counted on.?

As for the district?s operating reserve, Noble said a district tries to have at least one-month?s worth of expenses in the bank in case the state can?t come through with funding in a timely manner?which has happened this past year because of the state?s revenue shortfall.

?Some districts don?t have that, and are operating day to day,? Noble said. ?But in the current state of affairs, it?s a very healthy thing to do.

How will the district respond to projected funding cuts in the future, if instituted by the legislature?

?The plan today is to use cash reserves for 2009-10, and to form a fund prioritization committee for fiscal year 2011-12,? he said.

The committee, which will be comprised of school officials and district patrons, will work to set priorities ?of what we must continue to do and what we can go without,? Noble said.

?If we?re going to have to make up a half-million dollars over the next two years, we?re going to have think of a few things (to cut).?

Local support

Noble said he has been gratified by the support for local schools since his arrival as superintendent July 1.

?Many of these patrons view the school system as a key and critical component for what they want for the future of their kids, this district and this community,? he said.

As evidence, he cited patron support for the district operating with full authority of its capital outlay levy and local option budget. In addition, the majority supported a 2007 bond election to expand facilities, including a new athletic facility in partnership with Tabor College.

?But let me also say this,? he added. ?People are weary, and we cannot in this district sustain the level of funding we?ll need on the backs of USD 410 taxpayers.

?We need the state equalization funding to help us. That?s what the Kansas Constitution is all about. The constitution guarantees that every student in this state will have an opportunity for a high-quality, world-class education?whether you live in Caney Valley, Hillsboro, Garnett or Johnson County.?

Noble said the state must uphold its historical commitment to train and prepare youth.

?Who speaks for the kids? Who?s going to stand up for kids? rights in Topeka?? he said.

?History in this state indicates that, unfortunately, it takes a lawsuit to get that done. It?s sad that in a state we all call home, one I?ve lived in my entire life, that we get to the point that we debate the value of education.?

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