Published Online: November 18, 2013

Kansas governor seeks school finance dialogue

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Gov. Sam Brownback's desire for more dialogue on public education funding during the legislative session is worthy, but such discussions between administrators and elected officials will only succeed if they try to determine what the numbers mean, school superintendents said Monday.

A disconnect between schools and policymakers can arise because busy legislators are trying to juggle other priorities, said Cheryl Semmel, executive director of the Kansas School Superintendents Association.

"If the only time you have the big conversation is during the legislative session, you are destined to a level of anxiety and frustration," Semmel said.

Brownback said Friday that he'd like to break a 40-year tradition of Kansas school districts going to court over funding for public education when their efforts fail in the Statehouse. He would prefer that more effort be made throughout the year to talk about education goals and find common ground.

"Nobody talks to anybody, it's all handled in litigation," Brownback said at the time. "If I've learned anything in these systems it's that if you're not talking you're not going to come up with any resolution. If you're talking, you've got a chance to come up with something."

Brownback's office confirmed Monday that he would be hosting talks at his official residence on Nov. 25 between Republican legislative leaders and school superintendents.

The governor said recent talks among lawmakers and higher education leaders have been productive in explaining the mission of colleges and universities and how they spend state money.

"I always think that having a conversation about school finance is important," Semmel said. "We've always been willing and open and willing to do that."

The problem is that too often the debate focuses on data without any attempt to explain or justify what the data means, she said. For example, data on expenditures or hiring may be listed on a chart, used in legislative debate or political ads with no follow-up explanation as to why money was spent or how the hiring decisions were made by local school boards.

"We've become adjusted to digesting the sound bite," Semmel said.

The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to rule early next year in a 2010 lawsuit by school districts claiming the state is underfunding elementary and secondary education. The court's decision will likely dominate debate during the legislative session.

At issue is whether the state has kept its financial promises made in 2006 following the conclusion of a lawsuit filed in 1999. School districts and parents contend the state has cut education spending and failed to reach the spending goals put in law.

The state argues that overall school spending has increased and that legislators did the best they could for schools while in the throes of the Great Recession that decimated state revenues.

Kansas spends more than $3 billion in state revenues on K-12 education and more than $5 billion counting federal aid and local revenues raised through property taxes.

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