••• Education •••

Media is snowblind to school “budget cuts” and scheduling realities

trebek1Contestant: “Alex, I’ll take ‘Media Bias’ for 200.”

Alex: “It’s what the news media calls a ‘snow day’ in Kansas.” 

Contestant: “What is a budget cut?”

Alex: “Correct!

Although to my knowledge that answer/question combination has never been on Jeopardy!, it certainly would be appropriate the way the media continues to misrepresent the state of education funding in the Sunflower State.

An article in Education Week and this similar one in the Huffington Post, both of which were published April 3, used sensationalized headlines and irresponsible reporting to contrive a false financial crisis for the state’s public schools. Both headlines, the Huffington Posts “Kansas Schools Will Close Early This Spring For Lack Of Funds” and Education Week’s “Funding Cuts Force Kansas Districts to End School Year Early,” even make it appear that all 286 school districts will be starting summer vacation early this year. The reality is that there are only two: Concordia (USD 333) and Twin Valley (USD 240) and the headlines are false.  It’s not a disastrous a financial picture that is precipitating a shorter school year, the districts are merely forgoing some unused snow days.

The Education Week piece cited this Salina Journal article to support their assertion that it is Governor Brownback’s late year funding cuts and the new block grant funding law (which restored those cuts) that have precipitated the early dismissal. But regardless of the misleading headline, the Salina Journal story gives a much different picture of the real reasons those districts chose to end their schools years ahead of the original schedule.

Concordia has chosen to cut six days from the current school calendar. Their buildings will close four days early and there will be no school two other days. However, contrary to the article’s premise, the Salina Journal piece did not quote Concordia Superintendent Bev Mortimer as using budget constraints as a reason, although both Education Week and the Huffington Post chose to make that inference in relying heavily from that article. Specifically, Superintendent Mortimer cited one reason for the decision is to provide a perk to the teachers. “We haven’t been able to give raises to teachers like we like. One thing we could give them is some time…It was one positive thing we could do for our staff.” And they are able to give teachers that time by cashing in their unused snow days. “We would have done some of these [snow]days anyway,” the superintendent said. “We might not have chosen to do all six of them.”

Mortimer did state, however, that the decision would save USD 333 about $30,000. To put that dollar figure in perspective, the district’s total budget for the current school year is in excess of $18 million, putting the savings at 0.2%. Furthermore, Concordia’s cash reserves at the beginning of the last two schools years have exceeded $800,000.

So much for a financial crisis.

Twin Valley’s situation is not unlike that of Concordia. That district decided to forgo 7.5 “discretionary days” as they call them and end the year on May 8 instead of May 20. As an example of sensationalistic reporting, Huffington Post implies the students are missing 12 days of schools. (Maybe they think kids in Kansas go to school on the weekends?)

“Discretionary days?” Sounds like more unused snow days schools build into their calendar. Although the Salina Journal quoted Twin Valley Superintendent Jan Neufeld as saying, “Twin Valley’s ‘financial status’ was among the reasons” for the decision, she “declined to guess how much the district would save” by ending the school year earlier. Again, it sounds like much more than just financial considerations. How can you blame a funding cut for ending the school early if you don’t know how much money it will save? Twin Valley also had healthy cash reserves in excess of half a million dollars each of the last two years.

These financial conditions provide a reality that is a far cry from Education Week’s claim that “education funding cuts are forcing two Kansas districts to end the school year early.” What the media outlets failed to report is that both districts will still meet state law requirements for the number of days or hours students will be in school for the year.

Also, the media has been spewing misinformation that the new block grant funding approach will result in a cut of dollars to education. As the table below shows, both districts are receiving increases this school year, not decreases. Concordia will get nearly $200,000 more than 2013-14 and Twin Valley will receive over $170,000 more. The impact statewide is similar. Record state aid to education will continue under the block grants to the tune of 5.6% additional money allocated to schools over a three year period.


So, is there any evidence that schools in Kansas are teetering on the edge of a fiscal cliff?

As Alex Trebek would say: “No, sorry.”