KASB statement relating to the 2014 Legislative Session

The 2014 Legislative Session brought more authority, responsibility and accountability to local school boards in the operation of Kansas public schools. For the first time in decades, authority is moving toward local boards, rather than away from them. School board members will have more ability to “maintain, develop and operate” local public schools as provided by the Kansas Constitution. Boards will have more responsibility for management decisions and be held to higher standards of accountability.

The most significant development during the session was the Kansas Supreme Court’s Gannon school finance decision in March 2014. For the first time, the court specifically defined the standards for determining the level of suitable funding for public schools in Kansas. The measure is defined as a set of seven “capacities” based on what students must have to be successful as citizens, in postsecondary education and for their career.

Despite continuing controversy, the Legislature took no action to block the Common Core language arts and math standards adopted by the Kansas State Board of Education. These standards support a definition of “college and career readiness” endorsed by the Kansas Association of School Boards. They are also aligned with the new ‘student capacities,’ also referred to as the Rose Standards.

The Legislature and Governor (who signed the bill), the State Board, and local school boards- those given shared responsibility for improving education under the Kansas constitution - have now agreed on fundamental goals. The next step is to define how those goals can be appropriately measured, what programs are required to meet those goals, and what funding is needed to provide those programs. Local boards must determine how those goals will be achieved and enhanced in their communities.

The Supreme Court also ruled Kansas was failing to provide constitutionally equitable funding, and the Legislature responded by fully funding local option budget and capital outlay state aid for the first time in five years. In addition, the Legislature provided a $14 increase in base state aid per pupil and increased the amount of funding that can be raised through local option budgets.

However, there are important facts to remember.

  • First, although the Legislature increased base aid, it reduced funding for at-risk programs and online, virtual education programs. These changes will hit some districts especially hard.
  • Second, even with additional local funding, school operating budgets will increase at less than the rate of inflation, as they have done every year since 2009. As a result, school districts may still have to make cuts in some programs to pay for rising costs in other budget areas, despite higher state and local funding.
  • Third, much of the additional local funding is temporary, and will expire in one or two years unless approved by local voters.
  • Fourth, the Legislature ended with news that state revenues were $90 million lower than expected in April, and may continue to fall for several months.

Overall, school districts’ budgets are expected to grow less than the rate of inflation. All of these factors mean districts face difficult decisions in developing budget plans for the next several years. Although districts are sometimes criticized for cash reserves, such reserves may be required if state aid payments are delayed or reduced because state revenues continue to fall.

In the final days of the session, the Legislature passed a major change in school funding, requiring that property taxes collected from the 20 mill statewide levy be sent to the state rather than remain in local district accounts. If signed by the Governor, this could also create cash flow issues for districts.

The school finance bill signed by the Governor creates a special commission to study efficiencies in school district operations. This could result in significant controversy over what constitutes “efficient” local staffing, management and programs.

The school finance bill includes several controversial policy changes, including the repeal of the decades-long system of teacher due process that provided for a state hearing officer if a "tenured" teacher is removed. It also creates options for local boards to hire individuals without traditional teacher education degrees in certain areas, and expands a new program that allows districts to apply for "innovative" status that exempts them from many state school laws and regulations in exchange for higher student achievement standards.

These changes are controversial and may face possible - in fact, probable - legal challenges.

At the end of the session, a sharp drop in state revenue cast doubt on the state’s ability to maintain the current level of funding, let alone continue to support changes necessary to meet new expectations and standards. Also approved was a corporate tax credit for scholarships to private schools, which could further divert funding from public schools.

More than ever, local boards must be engaged with their community to provide leadership, reflect local needs and uphold community values. Kansas school boards welcome this challenge.