In update on school funding legislation, Shawnee Mission administration strikes tone notably more in sync with local lawmakers

Rick Atha, Shawnee Mission’s assistant superintendent for instructional support, in March.
Rick Atha, Shawnee Mission’s assistant superintendent for instructional support, in March.

Two months ago, Shawnee Mission School District Superintendent Jim Hinson floated a public education funding approach that was at odds with the frameworks being promoted by local lawmakers.

On Monday, the administration’s tone on school finance appeared to have shifted sharply more in line with the district-area representatives in Topeka.

Rick Atha, the district’s assistant superintendent for instructional support, and Stuart Little, the district’s lobbyist, used part of Monday’s board of education meeting to update members on the progress of two bills making their way through House and Senate committees. Atha, who served as superintendent of the Garden City School District before coming to Shawnee Mission two years ago and will take on a more prominent role under Interim Superintendent Kenny Southwick next school year, stressed that to adequately fund public schools, the legislature needed to increase the base state aid per pupil.

“When we went through recession, the economic downturn if you will, and our legislature reduced taxes, the base state aid dropped to $3,838 per student,” Atha said, noting that the level had risen slightly to the equivalent of $3,852 per pupil under the block grant. The bills being considered by House and the Senate committees would raise the level to just over $4,000 in the first year. Atha suggested it would need to rise from there to properly fund the public school system.

“I really think that the base state aid needs to get pretty rapidly up to that $4,400 [level in place before the recession],” he said. “And you will hear people all over the state arguing that that base state aid should ultimately get up to around $5,000 per student.”

Atha also remarked on the need to specifically address the additional costs associated with educating at-risk students, many of whom are in free-and-reduced lunch or English language learner programs. Those ranks have grown sharply in Shawnee Mission over the past 15 years. At present, 28 percent of Shawnee Mission’s 27,500 students are on free lunch programs, with an additional 10 percent in reduced lunch programs. More than 3,300 students are English language learners.

“It costs more. The research will tell you it costs more to educate children of poverty, children that are English language learners,” Atha said.

Atha specifically thanked Rep. Melissa Rooker, a member of the House K-12 Budget Committee who had frequently disagreed with Hinson’s stances in the public education debate, for championing more money for at-risk students.

“I applaud Representative Rooker in the House bill, she recommended an increase in the weighting for students [in that category],” Atha said. “We need to have more targeted interventions for our kids. Because we have schools that have as many as 80 percent free and reduced lunch here in Shawnee Mission. That was difficult for me to get my arms around when I came here two years ago.”

Little said he expected the court would probably like to see even “a little more effort” than a simple increase in the amount of funding delivered based on the number of students in the at-risk weightings. He said the courts would likely want to see parameters in place that specifically target the 25 percent of Kansas students who do not perform at the same academic levels as their peers.

Atha noted in his remarks that the funding approaches being considered in the statehouse closely resemble those in place prior to the block grant bill. In March, Atha delivered a presentation on school finance in which he laid out a host of reasons that Shawnee Mission area leaders had opposed the old funding formula. In his remarks Monday, such comments were notably absent.

While Atha said that the hour was getting late with a June 30 deadline to pass a bill that would pass court muster, he did not believe schools would close next fall.

“I do not believe our schools will close,” he said. “I believe we’ll open in August as scheduled. I believe our legislators collectively will put together a formula that meets the demand of the court. There’s too much at stake here.”