Ever the optimist, Marty Stessman, superintendent of Shawnee Heights Unified School District 450, said he’s hopeful the Kansas Supreme Court ruling in the Gannon school finance lawsuit on Monday will lead state lawmakers to raising funding to constitutional levels for his district and other Kansas schools — at least closer to what they were more than a decade ago.
“I think it’s the Goldilocks paradox,” Stessman said, referring to the proposed levels of school finance funding for this year and in fiscal 2019. “There’s a third who thinks it’s too much, a third who think it’s just right and a third who don’t think it’s enough, based on their perspective. I think if they look at it from the legal eyes of the court and not a political perspective, I think they’ll increase it with additional dollars from last year. I think there’s a good chance they could increase it from the law they passed.”
Stessman is referring to Senate Bill 19, which lawmakers passed in June and plugged an additional $194.7 million into this year’s school finance formula with another $97.8 million added to that amount for 2018-19 — for a total of $292.5 milllion over two years. The justices ruled that those levels of funding remain inadequate and unconstitutional.
Citing implementation of their “Kansans Can” vision for getting the state’s schoolchildren college and career ready, members of the Kansas State Board of Education had proposed nearly $900 million over the same two-year period. The plaintiffs’ attorneys in the Gannon case have also proposed the nearly $900 million figure to adequately fund schools through June 2019.
While a majority of the $194.7 million approved for schools in June went to increasing teacher salaries in all of Shawnee County and most Kansas school districts this year, Steve Noble, superintendent of Seaman USD 345, said it’s too soon to know if the next round of funding next year will go toward boosting teacher pay in his district.
“We’re always looking for ways to attract and retain great teachers and staff in our district,” he said in an email. “Since the Kansas Supreme Court did not specify a minimum amount for adequately funded schools, it will be up to the legislature to address the increase. Once we know the amount, our board of education will determine how we utilize any new money.”
Scott McWilliams, superintendent of Auburn-Washburn USD 437, said he expects additional funding the 2018 Legislature approves will have to go toward attracting and retaining educators in order to address the teacher shortage in Kansas as well as at-risk students.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to find talented teachers,” he said. “We want to create a financial package that will attract and retain teachers and provide additional supports for students with higher needs.”
“We will follow the spirit of the new school finance formula,” McWilliams continued. “The formula could look quite a bit different (in 2018-19), so we need to respond to how the formula is written, much like we had to this year, moving out of the block grants.”
“We are pleased with the court’s ruling,” Tiffany Anderson, superintendent for Topeka USD 501, said in a statement. “We look forward to our elected officials continuing on the path they started down this year, to fully fund our schools as outlined by the state constitution.”
During a recent interview, Anderson said after her first year as a superintendent in Kansas, she is surprised at how Kansas funds its’ schools compared with Missouri, where she led the Jennings district in the St. Louis metropolitan area.
“The Kansas funding system is very different than Missouri,” she said. “This past year, Missouri fully funded schools. In Kansas, we really are still working towards insuring that we have enough resources long-term to better fund schools. Not necessarily fully fund but to fund schools in a more equitable fashion. That’s an ongoing challenge.”
Stessman said while continuing to increase teacher pay and invest in kindergarten readiness is important for USD 450, rising health care costs are a “lit fuse” for most districts across the state.
“We don’t know when it’s going to blow,” he said, adding that USD 450’s health care costs have increased by 11.5 percent. “Health insurance is just the biggest challenge right now.”
Tim Hallacy, superintendent of Silver Lake USD 372, agreed that outside of keeping teachers and providing at-risk programming, health insurance is the “Achilles heel” for most school districts.
“I’m really worried about that,” he said, saying his district’s health insurance rates increased by 12.2 percent this year. “Those costs are rising so rapidly that I’m afraid they’re going to consume most of the funding increases we have received.”
Hallacy said his district has consistently had to deal with double-digit health insurance rate increases each year.
“It’s a long-term issue that we all face, not just in education,” he said. “Health care is a challenge on the front burner every year. It’s one we have to address because those costs have to be paid.”
Contact reporter Angela Deines at (785) 295-1143 or on Twitter @AngelaDeines.