By Gene Meyer | Kansas Reporter
FAIRWAY — “Close enough” currently counts only in horseshoes and hand grenades. Now a Kansas statutory target for school spending may join that list.
Kansas State Board of Education member Ken Willard, R-Hutchinson, whom Gov. Sam Brownback named to head a task force to develop guidelines shifting more of Kansas’ education budget into actual classrooms, said Tuesday that seeking better academic results trumps hitting a target for spending guidelines.
Current Kansas guidelines, which require schools to aim for spending at least 65 percent of their state funding on instruction, rather than administration or other overhead costs, “are somewhat arbitrary,” Willard said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
“I think 65 percent means nothing, unless it produces results,” he said.
Even the 65 percent guideline, which Kansas law sets as a public policy goal and not a requirement with penalties for missing, is difficult for many of Kansas’ 286 school districts to achieve. Only 15 of them meet or exceed the standard; most others spend between 60 percent and just less than 65 percent, which produces a Kansas-wide average 61.55 percent.
Kansas schools have some room to improve, some assessments indicate, though how much isn’t clear. Legislative auditors in 2010 examined the operations at seven Kansas school districts and found all of them could save money by automating paperwork, using information technology more efficiently, sharing resources and tightening up procurement and business practices. There were no indications of how many of these recommendations might be applicable statewide.
Willard said he expected more detailed guidelines for raising the percentage of classroom spending to be worked out in three to four hearings by the end of the year.
“We want to hear testimony from a lot of people, including school boards and especially from those schools that are hitting their 65 percent,” he said.
What might those schools say?
“We are a small, rural district, with 350 students K-12 who are dedicated to give as much as possible to our students,” said Sue King, superintendent of Troy Public Schools Unified School District 429, in northeast Kansas.
The district spends more than 70 percent of its state funding on classroom education, one of the highest levels in the state, according to the Kansas State Department of Education.
To achieve that, Troy USD’s 429 staffers multitask to keep down expenses. King, for example, also serves as the elementary school principal and the transportation services chief whose job, when necessary, is to drive the district’s country roads on snowy mornings to see if it’s safe to send buses.
“It’s a community thing,” King said. “It’s what we do.”
The schools also might say that sometimes can-do can go too far.
Chautauqua County Community Schools Unified School District 286, in Sedan, also spends more than 70 percent of its state money in the classroom, said Superintendent David Jackson.
“But that number is probably going to go lower next year,” said Jackson, who is no relation to Dave Jackson, a Topeka business owner named to the task force.
“Our math scores hurt last year,” he said. “We were put on a watch list, for the first time ever.”
Chautauqua Community board members said they believe the district got that academic warning because a math teacher was stretched too thin with additional administrative tasks.
“We’re going to hire someone,” Jackson said.
Unusual for an education task force in recent Kansas memory, the members Brownback named last weekend do not include professional educators. There are a half dozen certified public accountants in the group, including state Budget Director Steve Anderson from Brownback’s cabinet. Willard and former Republican Kansas state Sen. Jackson have served on local school boards. All have various business backgrounds.
More than half of Kansas’ total state spending, or about $3 billion, is directed toward elementary, middle and high school education, and task force members were chosen for their financial expertise to help get more state dollars into the classroom, said Sherriene Jones-Sontag, Brownback’s communications director.
Contact Gene Meyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.