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Kan. Education Groups Positioning for State Surplus

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A budget windfall in Kansas has school leaders angling for a piece of the pie. The revenue coffers show the state sitting on an estimated $300 million--unanticipated money that educators want Gov. Bill Graves and the legislature to put toward education.

"I believe the governor will have some additional funds for our public schools," said Dale Dennis, the state's deputy commissioner of education.

State at a Glance: Kansas

Population: 2.56 million

Governor: Bill Graves (R)

State Superintendent: John A. Tompkins

Number of K-12 students: 460,838

Number of K-12 schools: 1,490

Fiscal 1998 K-12 budget: $1.93 billion

Although the education department was required to submit its budget recommendations for the next fiscal year to the state in September, it is currently in the process of sending a request for additional funding that would come from the budget excess. Those funds could be distributed in the current fiscal 1998, as well as fiscal 1999.

"We've had surpluses before, but this amount is unusual," Mr. Dennis said.

The current total state budget is $8 billion for fiscal 1998, and $1.93 billion is currently budgeted for K-12 education.

Other states are also wrestling this fall with the welcome issue of how to divvy up unexpected revenue produced by the healthy economy.

High on the List

Under the Kansas education department's plan, the extra money would go toward increasing the base state aid per pupil, at-risk student aid, special education funding, and spending on school technology. It would also provide extra dollars for the state's larger school districts, which some say aren't getting enough money, Mr. Dennis said.

So far, Gov. Graves, a Republican, has committed, pending legislative approval, at least $66 million of the surplus to education.

The money, which came from a corporate-tax windfall, would be a one-time grant that the governor has earmarked for a technology package for K-12 schools and higher education, said Mike Matson, Mr. Graves' press secretary.

"Education is high on the governor's list of priorities," Mr. Matson said. "With $300 million in excess, there is flexibility for tax relief and enhanced investment in education and other areas."

With that in mind, many groups in the state are making up their wish lists, including the teachers' unions and the state school boards' association, according to Janelle Albertson, a spokeswoman for the education department.

"We're poised," she said. In a situation like this, she added, "Everyone steps up to the plate and says, 'My program needs more money.'"

The Kansas Association of State School Boards, which represents 296 of the state's 305 districts, would like to see an increase in per-pupil funding.

"We'd like to increase the base budget so that all students are helped by this money," Cathy Byers, the association's director of communications, said.

The Kansas Department of Education will make its decisions based on recommendations they are receiving from education groups in the state, and they will be ready before the legislature begins its session in January.

Prosperous Times

Kansas is not alone in seeing a fiscal windfall.

Policymakers in Alabama and Maryland, for example, are also weighing how they will spend extra state money.

In fact, the states overall are in their best budget situation since 1980, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"This is no surprise," Arturo Perez, a policy specialist with the Denver-based organization, said of the current surpluses. "We see that when the economy is doing well, revenue growth goes from the federal government right to states."

Last year, only six states did not record a budget surplus.

Of the majority that did have surpluses, 12 targeted K-12 education for one-time or extraordinary funding increases, according to the ncsl.

"We expect to see a repeat of what happened legislatively last year," Mr. Perez said.

Many states are now in the process of crafting their budgets for the next fiscal year, he said.

"So much of the budget work takes place long before legislators return in January. ... Certainly it is a good idea to say [now] this is how we want to spend surpluses," Mr. Perez said.

In addition to increasing school aid, state officials expect that lawmakers will be asked to spend some the surplus dollars to provide tax relief when legislatures convene in January.

Mr. Dennis, the deputy chief in Kansas, expects that his education department's request will be substantial. But, he said, "the governor will be reasonable and give money for education and tax relief. We look for a good session."

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