State law doesn’t allow the Kansas State Department of Education to allocate a minimum amount of funding for transportation, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt informed state leaders today.
“State law does not include a minimum funding level for transportation, and it does not give KSDE the authority to create one,” Schmidt wrote in a letter to legislative leaders, the Governor and Lt. Governor, and to the chair of the state board of education.
A legislative post audit recently revealed that Deputy Commissioner of Education Dale Dennis authorized $45 million in transportation funding to more than 25 schools contrary to state law. If the funding was allocated since the legislature stripped transportation weighting from the funding formula in 1973, more than $400 million may have been misallocated.
Legislative leaders asked that Dennis be put on paid leave while KSDE completed a forensic audit of its books, but the Kansas State Board of Education declined. In a 9-1 vote during a special meeting last week, the state board of education voted against suspending Dennis, who was responsible for authorizing the misallocation of funds.
A few days later, Schmidt urged state leaders to work together and conduct a single audit to determine whether the unauthorized expenditures were an isolated event or part of a systemic problem.
Kansas State Board of Education member Steve Roberts says he believes the problems might be systemic. Roberts, a conservative, voted to keep the deputy education commissioner.
“It’s a systems problem, and if it is about Dale, it’s that the system is so complicated that the only one able to unravel it is Dale,” Roberts said.
Lawmakers and even Gov. Sam Brownback have long argued the school funding formula is too complex. Justices recently ruled unconstitutional the current school funding formula. The Court gave lawmakers an April deadline to craft a new formula for judicial review.
Schmidt is the lead attorney for the state in the ongoing school funding court case, known as Gannon. He wrote he has an obligation to represent the structure and implementation of school funding accurately to the Supreme Court.
At least one lawmaker, Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook wonders how well Justices understood the current formula when issuing their opinions, since they missed the misallocation of transportation.
She tweeted, “The Kansas Supreme Court purports to have given this school finance formula a thorough review. Evidently not.”
She tweeted the audit that revealed the transportation misallocation reflects poorly on the Kansas Supreme Court.
“It obviously did not follow the money, while it portends to know how funds are being spent ‘equitably and adequately,'” she tweeted.
The state board of education has yet to determine whether to authorize a full audit of its books. Members instructed KSDE staff to offer proposals for making the books more transparent and accurate, but members didn’t suggest an audit.
“It’s not like we don’t get audits every year,” board member Ann Mah said. She said the board asked Education Commissioner Randy Watson to look at the structure of KSDE instead.
“We certainly asked Watson to take a look at how everything is set up,” she said.
The state board will examine proposals to increase transparency in a February or March meeting. That may not go far enough. Schmidt’s letter seeks a comprehensive and independent financial audit, preferably one coordinated by both the Legislature and the board of education.
In addition to serving as the state’s lead attorney in the school finance case, Schmidt also serves as the state’s top law enforcement official. When asked whether Dennis’ actions might result in further investigations or other recriminations, Schmidt’s office responded that the letter to state leaders speaks for itself.
“We have nothing further to add at this time,” Jennifer Montgomery, the attorney general’s public information officer, said.