As school boards across Kansas adopt budgets for the upcoming year, the media is reporting two different situations.
School administrators in some districts have laid off staff and are cutting programs for students while nearly all districts are making tough choices.
But others, such as Gov. Sam Brownback and legislative leaders, are saying that school funding is at an all-time high, and the new block grant system, they say, was designed to protect districts from cuts and provide stability.
Many parents, patrons and even school board members are likely confused by these different perspectives. The facts are really fairly simple. Although total funding is up, the part of school funding available for day-to-day operating costs is not keeping up with inflation and enrollment.
- Operating funding per pupil has not kept pace with inflation since 2009 even though total funding per pupil is at an all-time high.
School funding falls into several big categories. The money school boards can use for general educational purposes, from paying teacher salaries to heating, cooling and lighting buildings to busing students, comes from general state aid, special education state aid, and a local option budget. These are state and local operating funds, and they represent about two-thirds of total funding.
The remaining third is made up of federal funding for education programs, food service costs (funded by both federal aid and student meal fees), state contributions to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, costs of buildings and equipment approved by district voters or from local capital outlay tax levies, and other student fees for textbooks, etc. By law, none of these funds can be used for “general” operating costs.
Total school district funding is, in fact, at an all-time high, expected to top $6.1 billion this year. Following the Montoy school finance decision by the Kansas Supreme Court in 2005, funding increased rapidly, then declined following the Great Recession before beginning a slower rate of increase.
However, state and local operating budgets, which include each school district’s general fund, state special education aid and local option budgets, took a bigger hit following the recession, and recovered much more slowly. In fact, state and local operating budgets for the school year that just ended were at the same level as in 2009, although inflation has increased nearly 10 percent.
(Dollars in Thousands)
State and Local Operating Expenditures
Total funding does not take into account changes in student enrollment, which has been increasing. Total Kansas per pupil spending is at its highest point ever, projected to be over $13,000 in 2015. However, state and local operating funds per pupil is still below the 2009 level.
Total Expenditures Per Pupil
State and Local Operating Budgets
Finally, actual dollars do not show the impact of inflation. The following chart shows per pupil funding adjusted by the consumer price index to 2014 dollars. Total spending per pupil, when adjusted to 2014 dollars, is actually below 2007 levels. Operating dollars per pupil have actually declined when adjusted for inflation every year since 2009, and are projected to do so for the next two years under the block grants approved by the 2015 Legislature.
In short, Kansas school funding is like a family budget in which income may be increasing each year, but it has failed to keep pace with inflation and other extra costs. That family’s “real purchasing power” is actually dropping. Just like a family, when a school district’s expenses exceed income, the district must make cuts.
State and Local Operating Budgets
Total Expenditures Per Pupil
2. In the next two years, per pupil operating funding is projected to fall behind inflation under the block grant system.
The block grant bill passed by the 2015 Legislature basically did three things. First, it cut the state aid formula for local option budget and capital outlay state aid, so most districts did not receive as much funding as expected last year. This, in turn, required these districts to reduce their budgets during the year.
Second, it locked in most funding for school operating budgets for the next two years at the same level as the current year. In other words, it “froze” funding levels regardless of changes in student enrollment, special needs or inflation.
Third, it provided increased funding for KPERS pension contributions over the next two years - but districts can’t use these funds for any other purpose. KPERS aid is simply transferred to the district, then immediately transferred out.
When districts talk about budget cuts for the next two years under the block grants, it generally means they have rising fixed costs for salaries, insurance, utilities, and in many cases additional students. Because the block grant freezes operating funds, the district must find cuts in other parts of the budget to cover these additional expenses.
3. While total K-12 funding has increased over the past five years, most of the increase has not been available for regular educational operating costs.
School funding is not interchangeable. Districts have significant flexibility within some parts of their budget, and much less flexibility in others. Over the past five years, the flexible parts of school budgets have increased much less than restricted funding areas.
Since 2010, total funding for school districts increased by $510 million, but general operating funds from the state account for only $53 million, or about 10 percent of the total. Special education aid has barely changed. Local Option Budgets have increased by $127 million, or about one-quarter of the increase. The state legislature provided a large increase in LOB aid that took place last year (2015) to comply with a Supreme Court order. However, most of this increase had to be used to reduce local LOB mill levies, not to provide districts with additional spending power.
Over past five years, federal funding for education programs such Title I, special education federal aid and career and technical education aid has actually declined. However, federal meal support has increased due to the higher number of low income children. In fact, federal food aid accounted for more funding in the past five years than general state aid.
KPERS contributions for school employee retirement benefits increased by nearly $100 million, as the state has increased contributions to the underfunded pension system, but none of those dollars can be used for regular classroom expenses. In addition, state aid for bond payments and capital outlay expenditures - which can only be used for those purposes - increased nearly $90 million, because local voters have approved a number of school bond projects and the Legislature voted to restore capital outlay aid after another Supreme Court order.
It’s true that from the viewpoint of total dollars, funding for Kansas school districts is rising. However, the rate of increase is less than enrollment and inflation, especially for operating budgets, and the increased funds, such as pension obligations, are devoted to areas that cannot be used for classroom instruction. That means districts must cut positions, programs and services to cover expenses that are increasing faster than resources. This situation is projected to continue for the next two years under the block grant program.