School funding, changes in election cycle raise concerns for Shawnee Mission

By Dawn Bormann

Shawnee Mission School Board lobbyist Stuart Little this week said work is under way in Topeka to reshape school finance. But many questions remain, he said during a report to the Shawnee Mission School Board Monday.

Stuart Little speaking to the board in 2013. File photo
Stuart Little speaking to the board in 2013. File photo

The biggest change, he said, would be Governor Brownback’s proposal to institute block grant funding for schools. But even that plan, which was part of Brownback’s State of the State address, is still being hammered out.

“There’s nothing in writing,” Little said. “There’s nothing that’s been circulated. This is still being discussed.”

Yet lawmakers have put considerable energy into the idea as a way to help change how schools are funded.

Little said block grants are designed to give school districts flexibility to spend money without the lengthy restrictions that exist in the current plan. But there are concerns.

“What it would do over the next two years is it would freeze every school district at the level of funding that you received in 2015,” Little told board members.

There would be no adjustments – as the current funding structure includes – for providing more money to districts with more at-risk students from year-to-year. It would also freeze funding if a school district has an increased enrollment.

The Kansas Department of Education said it would be a cut of $127 to $129 million statewide annually.

Even as discussion for block grant funding continues, lawmakers are working to reshape the school finance formula structure as well, he said. Considerable work remains, Little told board members, and deadlines loom ahead.

“We’ve got a 90-day session and we’re now 2.5 weeks into it,” he said.

Board member Craig Denny asked Little how cohesive the Johnson County delegation appeared to be this year. “Are they on the same page when it comes to education?”

Little said he thinks the group, which represents a broad range of ideologies, can find common ground on education. “Everybody does understand that the school district is the strength of what drives people here, brings people and keeps people here. And keeps the economic engine running,” he said. “And I don’t suspect in the long-run that the Johnson County delegation would hurt that.”

Election cycle
Little told board members he expects to see a bill aimed at moving the timing of school board elections from spring to fall. State lawmakers appear ready to move elections because they believe it would improve turnout. So far, lawmakers have discussed having non-partisan elections in odd number years that wouldn’t correspond with a presidential election.

One school board member questioned if moving the election to the fall would help given that primaries would be in August when many families take summer vacations before school begins. Others were concerned that a fall election would mean lawmakers would begin their term in the middle of the fiscal year when many decisions have already been made.

Board chair Deb Zila asked one state lawmaker: “How would you feel if you were seated in your position in February after the session had begun?”