As the start of the new legislative session in Topeka nears — and with it another round of intense debate about school financing — Superintendent Jim Hinson last week had some less than flattering words for the lawmakers and auditors who have been combing through the Shawnee Mission School District’s operations.
Hinson was among eight superintendents selected to meet with New York-based consulting group Alvarez & Marsal last month as they began their audit of education spending as part of an efficiency study of the state’s budget. Since that meeting, he said, the district has been “inundated” with requests for information about where the district’s dollars go from both the consultants and members of the legislature’s special committee on education.
From detailed records on employee health insurance spending to the costs associated with the upkeep of gymnasiums and athletic fields, the district’s business and finance employees have been nearly overwhelmed with the requests.
“No pun intended, it’s been very taxing on our business and finance department responding to all the requests,” Hinson said.
Hinson emphasized that he had no qualms with opening up the district’s books, saying that such transparency is a healthy part of keeping large organizations in line. But, he said, the motivation behind some of the requests appeared suspect.
“I am not opposed at all to anybody looking at our budget to say [how to be] more efficient in this regard, I think that is beneficial to every large organization,” Hinson said. “I think how that occurs sometimes is really the key — the motivation behind the process. That’s, I think, part of the concern of school superintendents around the state… Have we not been tightening our belts for months? And then for the legislature that had the longest session ever to spend all that money [on the excess days in session], and then to spend close to $3 million for this audit, I think that brings concern to all of us about the motivation, about the intent behind that process.”
While he kept a diplomatic tone while discussing the audit with members of the media late last week, he admitted to being frustrated by some of the information requests.
“We’ve had to give very detailed information on coaching salaries,” he said. “I really find that request offensive. If you really broke down what our coaches are paid by the hour, these are not highly paid individuals… But that’s a request we’ve had to respond to.”
Hinson said the district had heard nothing about the creation of a new school finance formula, a step that was promised as part of the move to a two-year block grant funding system that was supposed to provide a “time out” for legislators to craft a long-term funding solution.
Hinson has indicated that he expects the state to have difficulty fully funding its obligations to the schools under the block grant bill in the coming months. And while he’s been upfront about the financial challenges Shawnee Mission faces under the block grant, he said Kansans need to be realistic about the options if they want more money pumped into the public education system.
“We either have to change a lot of the [tax] credits and abatements [given to businesses], or we have to increase the rate of tax that everybody pays. It’s the only way you can do it,” he said.