Capitol Update: Pilcher-Cook says misallocation of education transportation funds ‘casts doubt that tax dollars are being spent according to the law’

Each legislative session, we provide the Shawnee Mission area’s elected officials with the chance to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol. Rep. Nancy Lusk, Rep. Randy Powell and Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook are scheduled to send updates this week. (Rep. Powell declined to submit an update for today, but said he plans to participate in future opportunities). Here’s Sen. Pilcher-Cook’s filing:

Mary Pilcher-Cook

This week, Kansas celebrated a transfer of power and continued to discuss important issues impacting our liberties and our way of life. In both chambers, legislation is moving its way through the committee process and beginning to reach the floor for debate and votes.

The committees I serve on are Commerce, Ethics & Elections and Judiciary. Generally, the House and Senate Judiciary committees have the largest number of bills which are also the most complex. It takes a tremendous amount of research to ensure the best decisions are made regarding this legislation. Often, the committee will hear only one viewpoint of why specific legislation is needed, and in those cases, it is imperative for legislators to also give due consideration to keeping current statutes without changes.

The Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center at KU Med will likely be doing a presentation to the health committees and the appropriation committees in both the House an the Senate. It is fascinating to hear how much progress MSCTC has made with adult stem cells with far less funding than other states. You can find out more about it here.

Kansas Department of Education owes taxpayers answers

Last week, I discussed the news that a Legislative Post Audit had discovered the Kansas Department of Education had unlawfully misappropriated approximately $400 million in funds. This week, there is more to report on this matter.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning sent a letter to State Board of Education Chairman Jim Porter asking for an explanation of the authority KSDE used to make the transportation allocations which were not allowed for in state law. He also requested a worksheet showing the overpayments for each year, and for documents regarding the funding practice which some State Board members said were previously provided to the Legislature.

In addition, Majority Leader Denning gave a firm and clear response to the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) in an excellent editorial about the recent audit by Legislative Post Audit (LPA), which revealed the unlawful increase in transportation funding for a select group of school districts. Below is a key excerpt:

During Friday’s meeting, KSDE completely ignored the audit’s damning findings. Not only did the board not discuss corrective action needed by the audit findings, it plans to openly continue spending the unauthorized money even though it has been informed by LPA it is not legal.

Several board of education members, including board chairman Jim Porter, of Fredonia, and Ken Willard, of Hutchinson, have said the burden of responsibility for examining school funding distribution “lies with the Legislature.” In other words, they are saying the Legislature should have self-identified if the amounts are correct or not, even though these dollar amounts are presented directly to the Legislature by the Kansas Department of Education.

However, LPA auditors only recently uncovered the unauthorized $45 million payments, which were intentionally embedded in the spreadsheet KSDE uses to calculate transportation state aid. Senate Leadership and the A.G.’s office recommended KSDE perform a forensic audit on the entire formula to verify that nothing like the LPA’s findings are occurring elsewhere in the formula.

I concur with Majority Leader Denning that the action by the Kansas Department of Education is deeply troubling. It casts doubt that tax dollars are being spent according to the law. The response or lack of response by the board members is unacceptable, particularly at a time when there is a need for increased transparency.

The complex education finance formula also calls into question the Kansas Supreme Court’s role in this regard. How can the court order more money into a formula that is so convoluted that only one man apparently understands it and is the one who distributes the funds?

Conservative legislators have been calling for fundamental reforms to the school finance formula for many years and adopted a system of block grant appropriations before the last election. However, many conservative legislators were not re-elected, and new legislators worked hard to get the old broken formula back in place, pressing forward with the same system that allowed for this unlawful allocation. Stay tuned on this one. I see big battles ahead.

Because of the misappropriation of funds, the education finance formula is again under scrutiny, and hopefully will be further audited. To help provide you some background, below is an excerpt about the formula’s transportation funding history taken from the Legislative Post Audit Report on transportation for education. If you would like to read the entire report, here is the link.

The state has used a formula to provide transportation funding to school districts since 1965. State law allocates transportation funding to each school district based on a funding formula. The formula uses a district’s per-student transportation cost, the number of students eligible for transportation, and student density to determine the amount of funding disbursed to each district. This method was passed into law in 1965 but has been modified several times:

  • 1965: The first transportation funding formula was passed.

  • 1973: A per-student minimum funding amount was removed from statute.

  • 1978: The state began counting students for whom transportation was made available, rather than students actually transported.

  • 1992: The entire K-12 funding formula was overhauled. Although the mechanics of transportation funding remained the same, a weighted transportation FTE was introduced and tied to base state aid per pupil.

  • 2015: The Legislature passed the CLASS Act (often referred to as the “block grant”) which froze most components of state aid, including transportation funding, at the 2014-15 levels.

  • 2017: The Legislature passed Senate Bill 19, which reinstituted the transportation funding formula with some modifications to address a math error in the earlier formulas.