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Kansas Budget Cuts Come to Roost – on Schools

(CN) - Two years after forcing through the biggest tax cuts in Kansas history, Governor Sam Brownback wants to cut $44.5 million from public schools, due to "lower-than-expected" sales tax revenue and a $344 million budget shortfall.

The cuts are to take effect March 7 despite a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in December that "constitutional inadequacy" persists in the state's K-12 school funding.

Brownback's budget cuts will take $28 million, or 1.5 percent, out of elementary and secondary education, and than $16 million, or 2 percent, from higher education.

The education cuts, along with a new budget-balancing bill approved by the Legislature, are meant to stave off a $344 million deficit projected for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Despite the cuts, Kansas faces a projected budget shortfall of $600 million for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Brownback cut personal income tax rates in 2012 and 2013 in what he hailed as a "real live experiment" intended to stimulate the economy. The state then fell into the red, but the Republican governor won re-election last November after assuring voters that schools and core government services would remain safe from tax cuts.

"One week after he was re-elected, he reneged on those promises," said Marcus Baltzell, director of communications for Kansas National Education Association.

"The governor has once again thumbed his nose at the courts because he didn't like the ruling," Baltzell said.

Kansas lawmakers last year boosted state aid to poor school districts in an effort to comply with a March 2014 Kansas Supreme Court order in Gannon v. State of Kansas. The lawsuit, filed in 2010, alleged that the state violated the Kansas Constitution by inadequately funding public schools.

A trial court decision was issued in January 2013, finding that the school finance system was unconstitutional "beyond any question." The state appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, which agreed with the finding and referred the Supreme Court's opinion for review in the District Court of Shawnee County.

In December 2014, a three-judge panel from that court issued its decision that "constitutional inadequacy from any rational measure or perspective clearly has existed and still persists in the state's approach to funding the K-12 school system."

The opinion pointed out that in 2009, the Kansas K-12 school system was "functioning as a K-12 school system should in order to provide a constitutionally adequate education to Kansas children" and called Kansas' current fiscal dilemma "self-imposed."

Kansas K-12 funding is still proceeding "by political choice to use otherwise available state financial resources elsewhere or not at all," Shawnee County District Court Presiding Judge Franklin R. Theis wrote in the 117-page opinion.

Brownback last week blamed the education cuts on inadequate sales tax revenue and called on the Legislature to reform equalization factors in the school finance formula over the next 30 days to stall the increase of $54 million in Local Option Budget State Aid and Capital Outlay State Aid spending.

"By reforming the equalization factors, the Legislature could, and should, restore the 1.5 percent allotment," Brownback said in a statement, which made no mention of the fact that the state's revenue decline was mainly due to income tax reductions that he signed into law.

Instead, Brownback rapped the knuckles of school administrators concerning one district's purchase of a $48,000 grand piano for its music program. "That money could and should have been used to hire another teacher to reduce class sizes and help improve academic achievement," Brownback said.

Now school administrators are scrambling to trim their budgets.

"I have asked each of the outstanding professionals who make up our district to do what they can to reduce use of resources and delay any and all purchases until further notice," Eudora Superintendent of Schools Steve Splichal said on his district's website.

"Until the governor and state lawmakers choose to restore revenue streams - most notably, the tax plan passed in 2012 that has brought us to this point - Eudora Schools and districts all across our state will suffer," Splichal wrote.

"It's very simple," Baltzell said. "They're out of money. Teachers can no longer shield students from the effects of these cuts. Programs just can't exist where there's no money.

"Do we cut five or six teachers? Do we cut the number of administrators and guidance counselors? Do we cut athletic programs entirely? Some districts are now considering cutting extracurricular activities," said Baltzell.

"Even if the state went back to a responsible tax structure at noon today, it would take months or years to get back to that adequate level," Baltzell said. "The reality today is that in the classroom, things are only going to get worse."

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