Media reports on the just-passed legislation that will fund schools on block grants for the current year are loaded with school administrator claims that school funding is being cut this year, and legislators continue to be bombarded with phone calls and emails making the same claim.
But it’s not true. As we explained on a recent blog post, school funding will set a fourth consecutive record this year at $6.147 billion and a third consecutive record at $13,347 per pupil. Funding will increase by $171 million this year and only $3 million of the increase is for pension funding.
The Wichita Eagle quotes USD 259 officials as saying the district “…would receive $4.8 million less for the current year than it would otherwise.” The key phrase is ‘than it would otherwise.’ No reference is made to how funding this year will compare to what the district actually spent last year because that is how the game is played; government only wants to compare to what it wants to spend rather than what it actually spent last year.
So we asked USD 259 a simple question: how much will you spend this year? The answer, from CFO Jim Freeman, was $710.7 million, which is 14% more than the $623.6 million spent last year. USD 259 is getting a lot of sympathy for the alleged $4.8 million reduction but in reality, they estimate actual spending will be $87 million more this year. (Mr. Freeman did note that the $710.7 million estimate is “probably higher than where the actuals will wind up” but it is based on “…maintaining current educational programs at planned levels” for the remaining 3 months.)
We also inquired about the variance between the $710.7 million estimate for this year and budgeted spending of $680.1 million shown in the district’s Budget at a Glance, as schools are not allowed to spend more than their published budget. It turns out that published budgets are actually lower than the real budget because state law exempts several funds from being budgeted (at least Special Reserve [for self-insurance of health care], Textbooks and Materials, Activities and Construction, accorded to Dale Dennis at KSDE). All district budgets would be potentially understated for Textbooks and Materials fund and Activities fund; only 24 districts used the Special Reserve fund last year and the Construction fund would only be used by districts with bond issues.
State law requires actual spending in Special Reserve, Textbooks and Materials and Activities to be recorded but not any budgeted spending. As a result, the Notice of Public Hearing makes it appear that no money will be spent in those funds for the coming year and gives a false impression of total budgeted spending. State law should be changed so that actual and budgeted spending must be published for every fund.
The Legislature should also ask every district to disclose their estimated spending this year so they and all citizens can make an honest evaluation of school spending.