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Kansas public schools face backlash on endless money crisis

February 16, 2018

Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, answers questions about budget issues during an interview, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, in his Statehouse office in Topeka, Kan. Ryckman said lawmakers have valid concerns that increasing spending on public schools will squeeze other parts of the state budget. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Prisons in Kansas face a crisis in hiring staff because of poor pay. A former governor called a state hospital for the mentally ill “a pit.” Highway projects are delayed because state funding keeps getting diverted to other priorities.

But an ongoing lawsuit has forced state legislators to be preoccupied with finding money for public schools ahead of those other pressing issues. And lawmakers are starting to resent that.

“It’s like the schools are the grain truck. Instead of sharing the grain, they just keep raising the sides on the bed and keeping it all for themselves,” said state Sen. Ty Masterson, a conservative Wichita-area Republican. “They’ve been able to keep themselves at the front of the line for a long time.”

Legislators increased income taxes last year to help balance the budget and put some of the extra money they raised into schools. Most want to avoid the political poison of another big tax increase this year, but if they do that and put schools first, they worry that other, long-suffering agencies and programs could keep suffering.

Educators are well aware of the backlash but contend schools and state agencies are living with the consequences of past state income tax cuts championed by former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. Those tax policies received renewed national attention as Congress approved federal income tax cuts late last year.

Even after Kansas lawmakers reversed most of the Brownback-inspired state tax cuts last year, budget problems remained and awaited new GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer after Brownback resigned last month to take an ambassador’s post.

“You can’t blame schools,” said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the state’s largest teachers union. “You can lament it all you want, but it’s a problem of your own making.”

Kansas spends more than $4 billion a year — more than half of its general revenues — on its public schools. But the state Supreme Court ruled in October that even with a funding increase approved last year, it’s not sufficient under the state constitution.

The state has been in and out of lawsuits over education funding for decades, and the current one was filed in 2010 by four school districts. The Supreme Court has issued five rulings in the past four years requiring new spending on public schools.

In its last ruling in October, the court did not set a specific spending target but hinted that it could be $650 million more a year.

Top Republican leaders signaled that they want to avoid such a big increase in spending on schools by commissioning an outside academic study of education costs in hopes of generating a lower figure that lawmakers could defend in court. The study is due in mid-March, and work on school funding legislation is stalled until it’s done.

“Maybe we say, ‘We’ve got to live within our means,’” said Senate budget committee Chairwoman Carolyn McGinn, a moderate Wichita-area Republican. “Maybe we need to reassess the direction we’re going.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., a conservative Kansas City-area Republican, said lawmakers are right to expect to squeeze other parts of state government if they increase spending on schools.

“That is the math of it,” he said. “There’s only so much taxpayer money.”

Even moderate Republicans receptive to higher spending on schools are pushing to broaden the budget discussion, suggesting that extra spending on social services helps ensure that young children start school ready to learn.

Other lawmakers see public safety as a bigger priority after disturbances at multiple prisons last year. Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood told one panel this week that pay remains a problem even after a pay raise for uniformed officers last year — and if he could find enough workers, budget constraints require him to leave nearly 10 percent of all positions unfilled anyway.

“We can’t gut those other functions of government just to meet the demands of one sector,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from western Kansas.

But public schools have something other recipients of state dollars do not: A provision in the Kansas Constitution requiring legislators to “make suitable provision” for funding them.

“They are going to be first in line,” said Democratic state Rep. Tom Sawyer, of Wichita.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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