Among all the discussion and disagreement that is dominating the education funding debate there is one topic the education establishment avoids. While again and again complaining of being underfunded, school districts in Kansas have quietly amassed cash reserves of $853 million, an 82% increase from a decade earlier! These are funds over and above that which is federal money or earmarked for debt service or capital expenditures. In other words, this is money that could be put in classrooms across the state to improve student achievement. Giving that sum a perspective, it represents 16.6% of all school operating expenses. A decade ago, it was 11.4%. Had districts merely kept the same ratio of cash reserves to operating expenses, they could have put nearly another $300 million in the classroom. That should have been easy for them to do since there is no record of districts going to the legislature and testifying that their reserves were too low back in 2005.
Groups like this one that advocate for more money to education have decried the reduction in base state aid per pupil (considering it the sole barometer of school funding) as forcing districts to cut staff, programs and services. For three consecutive years starting in the 2009-10 school year, base state aid per pupil was reduced in the face of recession-induced lower state revenues. How did districts respond? As the table shows, their cash reserves continued to swell!
What’s even more troubling is that districts have asked voters to increase funding through budget override elections while sitting on those millions. For example, in the summer of 2015 school boards in Shawnee County’s USD 501 (Topeka Public Schools) and USD 437 (Auburn-Washburn) asked residents for more money through the local option budget (LOB) process. At the time, USD 501 had about $24 million in cash reserves and USD 437 had approximately $8.5 million. (The USD 501 referendum passed while the one in USD 437 failed.)
The practice of grumbling over (non-existent) funding cuts while socking away millions more that could go to classrooms does not put Kansas students first.