A half-empty bus passes a Wichita elementary student each morning as he walks more than two miles to the same school as the bus destination, but the district wants more money from the Legislature to let him ride the bus. That’s an anecdote Kansas State Board of Education member Betty Arnold shared as one reason the state board wants the Kansas Legislature to increase transportation funding to school districts.

The current school funding formula provides additional funding for each student that lives more than 2.5 miles from their school building. The state board wants more funding for shorter distances.

Arnold said elementary parents regularly ask about getting their kids who live just short of the state-funded distance onto busses.

“They say, the bus is not full, but because I’m not at 2.5 miles, I’m at 2.3 miles, my kid can’t ride the bus,” she said.

The anecdote prompted Senate Education Chair Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, to wonder what’s wrong with the local school board and school administrators.

“The school board has a transportation system, and they’ve got routes. And that little boy is walking starting at 6 a.m. to get free breakfast, and they know the bus is passing by and it’s not full,” she said. “To me, that’s the local school board saying we will not provide services unless the state is going to fund it.”

She said school boards and local administrators need to step up in this situation.

Schools can provide transportation without legislative approval

“I think (the Kansas Association of School Boards) could step right in and help those school boards resolve this instead of taxpayers,” she said. “They’re already providing the funding. Those buses are already there.”

The cost to take that one student to school is built-in, she said. The bus driver is funded. The bus is funded. The gas is paid for. School districts are not prohibited from allowing a kid who lives closer to take the bus.

“This is a case where the bus is not half full, it’s half empty,” she said. “I think KASB could step right in and help these school boards resolve this instead of the taxpayers. They’re already providing the funding. Those buses are already there. “

Schools received unlawful funding for bussing for years, Baumgardner reminded the state board.

In 2018, an audit revealed that former education secretary Dale Dennis authorized $45 million in excess transportation payments to school districts. He made the authorization despite lawmakers removing a minimum transportation weighting from the school finance formula in 1973. The audit only reviewed a handful of years, but Dennis, a 50-year employee of the Kansas State Department of Education, authorized the payment since 1973, it cost the state more than $400 million.

Schools received unlawful transportation funding for years

“There was no clawback. That money did not go back to the general fund. Taxpayers never got a refund,” Baumgardner said. “But the local school districts definitely benefited from the overpayment.”

The tense discussion occurred at a joint meeting with chairs and the ranking minority members of Senate and House education committee members and the state board of education. The state board presented its legislative priorities for the upcoming session, including the request for additional transportation funding and more funding for other education items.

However, the state board did not provide cost estimates for its requests. 

“The fact that they had not put pencil to paper to even identify what the additional burden to the taxpayers might be to change the transportation funding formula seemed shortsighted,” Baumgardner said.

Court-approved formula includes funding increases

After years of litigation, the Kansas Supreme Court recently approved a new school funding formula. Baumgardner said there’s limited appetite to add increases beyond those already built into it. 

“There is fatigue with adding more funding to education when we have so many needs,” Baumgardner said.

The Department of Education estimates that funding exceeded $16,000 per student last year and school budgets reviewed by The Sentinel indicate funding could exceed $17,000 in the current school year.  But while spending jumped significantly, achievement has been declining, as explained in yesterday’s story about ACT scores.

In total, more than 50% of the state’s general fund budget passes through to school districts. Taxpayers, she said, notice.

“All other programs, all other agencies, all other needs in the state including higher education, feel squeezed out as funding for K-12 continues to grow,” she said. “And so they want to know, constituents want to know when is there going to be relief? Why do we keep paying more for public education and we seem to be getting less?”

Lawmakers, activists spar over ‘fatigue’

The word “fatigue” triggered some school board members.

“When Ms. Baumgardner mentions funding fatigue, who do you suppose is so fatigued?” Kristen Schultz, an incumbent on the Gardner Edgerton School District Board of Education, responded on her Facebook page. “Our teachers? Doubtful.”

Schulz said teachers are providing glue sticks, sensory items, snacks, and books to students out of pocket. 

“Teachers are definitely feeling fatigue, but it is not the result of over-funding,” Schultz wrote.

Kansas Democrats, including Gov. Kelly, seized on Baumgardner’s remark.

Kelly tweeted, “I’m not tired of fully funding public schools and investing in our kids. Pass it on.”

Others followed suit and tweeted the same.

But Governor Kelly and other ignore the fact that districts have the funding to cover teacher supplies; local school boards choose to spend money elsewhere.  Schools also could spend down some of their reserves to pay fro teacher supplies.  They began the last year with almost $1 billion in the bank and most of that money comes from funding not spent in prior years.

Baumgardner said the Democrats are focusing on one word of what was a long soliloquy. A former school teacher, Baumgardner said she understands that teachers are fatigued. However, the fact that teachers are paying for glue sticks and markers is an indication that the money legislators direct to school districts isn’t reaching the classrooms.

“Are teachers fatigued? Yes. They don’t have a say over how the funding is spent for their building. They don’t have access to funds for their classrooms,” she said. “The money isn’t getting into classrooms.”

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