Legislators pass recession bill with school cuts

Friday, February 13, 2009

From Tribune Staff and AP Reports

The financial future of 295 Kansas school districts rests in the hands of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius following the final legislative passing of a $326 million deficit-recovery plan Thursday.

The House passed the bill Thursday morning on a 70-51 vote. The Senate approved it seven hours later, 27-11, sending the measure to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat who has tried to avoid cutting aid to public schools.

The bill eliminates a projected $199 million deficit for the fiscal year that ends June 30. Slightly less than half the adjustments consist of cuts in spending, with accounting changes and refinancing of state bonds making up the rest.

Public schools would lose almost $28 million in base state aid plus more than $4 million in funds for special education programs. Those reductions were endorsed by the House, but senators wanted to reduce base aid by less than $7 million and leave the special education funds unchanged.

School cuts translate to about $66 per student leaving many smaller rural schools wondering how they will survive the 2009 school year.

House District 4 Representative Shirley Palmer, D-Fort Scott, who voted against the bill, said state financial dilemmas do not justify removing funding from local districts in jeopardy six months into the school year.

"There is no question that our budget is in crisis, but I could not support a bill that drastically slashes public school budgets so late in the school year," she said Thursday following the House's vote. "Our children are our most important investment and providing for their education is our best opportunity to grow our struggling economy."

In addition to the per student cuts, further funding losses from special education and high risk enrollment will push the average per-student cost to Fort Scott schools to $103 and Uniontown schools to $144.

USD 234 School District Superintendent Rick Werling has said, though prepared, Fort Scott schools are not deciding on any cuts until the deficit bill has been signed by the governor.

"It's hard at this point," said Werling in a previous interview with The Tribune. "We are just waiting right now to see what happens (with the budget amendment). It doesn't seem very good though."

Republicans hold majorities in both chambers, and their leaders said the cuts in school aid were necessary to avoid deeper cuts elsewhere, including public safety and social services. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Kevin Yoder said the plan that emerged from talks between the two chambers contained ''a proper mix of cuts.''

District 13 Senator Bob Marshall, R-Fort Scott, who voted against the Senate's original bill, gave a nod Thursday as he said he felt the newest version consisted of less "one-time cuts."

"It is very hard to cut funding from education," said Marshall in a previous interview. "But, if we don't take the necessary steps now, twenty-ten will be even worse. By saving those one-time cuts, they will be available to us for the next year's budget."

The cut is about 1 percent of schools' total aid.

''We certainly haven't seen the impact that some states have had,'' said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

But Tallman said districts still face difficulties because they're locked into contracts with most of their personnel. He said they'll delay equipment purchases, restrict travel and deplete their cash reserves. A dozen districts have no cash reserves, according to the state Department of Education.

''Districts are not going to want to interrupt programs,'' he said. ''You may not be able to fund the summer school program.''

Even with contingency funds in place, Werling and USD 235 Superintendent Randy Rockhold say there is simply not enough money to go around. Both USD 234 and USD 235 utilize these funds as part of their budgets and generally end the school years with a near-zero balance.

House District 2 Representative Robert Grant, D-Cherokee, who also voted against the bill, believes cuts to the budget should have been handled in a generally more delicate manor.

"We needed to go into this thing with a filet knife," said Grant. "But instead we went in with a meat ax."

It is unclear as to how long Sebelius will review the budget-amendment bill, but several law makers said they were under the impression Sebelius will have made a decision by Monday. As far as the governor's actions, little is known or even speculated about which direction she will lean.

"I don't think anybody knows but the governor," said Grant. "I am sure she is probably getting a lot of advice from a lot of people."

Sebelius could veto the cuts in school aid and let the rest of the bill stand, and spokeswoman Beth Martino said Wednesday that the governor ''remains concerned'' about its education reductions.

Palmer said Thursday that she remains hopeful, Sebelius' stance on education will lead her to putting the bill back out onto the legislative floors.

"It puts her in a difficult position," said Palmer. "Education is high on her list too. She very well could (veto the bill) and I hope she does.

But on Thursday, Martino said only, ''We are going to take a very close look at the bill.''

Surrounding school district's projected losses:

Fort Scott -- $103 per student

Uniontown -- $144 per student

Pittsburg -- $110 per student

Girard -- $119 per student

Link to Senate votes:


House votes: