TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas’ attorney general and conservative lawmakers worry that the State Department of Education has informally tweaked policies that determine how public school funding is distributed and boosted spending beyond what lawmakers have intended.
Their concerns are likely to prompt a broad, independent audit of how the department distributes more than $4 billion in aid each year to the state’s 286 school districts to see how closely its work follows the formula set by state law. This follows a political firestorm over questions about the distribution of funds for busing students to school.
A state audit last month said a calculation used by the department for decades was “not authorized” by law and cost the state an extra $45 million over the past five years. Top Republican legislators pushed for the suspension of a respected, longtime deputy education commissioner and his staff, only to see educators and other lawmakers rally to his defense.
But top Republican leaders and fellow GOP conservatives continue to ask whether there are similar issues with other parts of the funding formula. House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., a conservative Olathe Republican, said that if calculations in other parts of the formula aren’t consistent with state law, “we need to clean them up.”
“We want to make sure that what’s being calculated is accurate for all kids in all school districts,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Molly Baumgardner, a conservative Louisburg Republican.
Education Commissioner Randy Watson said Tuesday that he’s drafting a proposal for a broad, outside audit for the State Board of Education to consider in two weeks.
His comment came a day after Attorney General Derek Schmidt sent him and legislative leaders a letter seeking such an audit. Ryckman, Republican Senate President Susan Wagle of Wichita and other GOP conservatives already were seeking such a review.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a conservative Overland Park Republican, said he doesn’t expect a broad audit to find other places in the formula where a calculation results in the state spending between $8 million and $11 million extra, as with transportation funding.
But, he added, “There are probably a lot of smaller issues that need to be cleaned up.”
The push for the broader audit comes with legislators facing a Kansas Supreme Court mandate to increase spending on public schools. The court ruled in October that even with an increase approved last year, education funding is inadequate under the state constitution.
The transportation funding audit last month led Ryckman and Wagle to tell the state school board’s chairman in a letter that they had “lost faith” in the accuracy of work by Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis and his staff. Dennis, now 80 and a department employee for 50 years, has been considered the state’s leading expert on its school funding formulas for decades.
He has said the calculation for transportation funding — which ensures that all districts get some aid — was based on lawmakers’ instructions from years ago and has been discussed in numerous meetings since then. The Board of Education endorsed that explanation in publicly declaring last week that members “fully support” Dennis — preventing him from being disciplined by Watson.
“I have full confidence in the work that our staff does every day,” Watson said Tuesday.
Asked about lawmakers’ concerns that other parts of the formula have been adjusted by the department over the years, Watson said: “We’re going to do an audit to get at that question.”
“We follow the law,” he said. “We do what the legislators ask us to do.”
Despite GOP legislative leaders concerns, many other lawmakers have defended Dennis and the department’s work. Rep. Valdenia Winn, of Kansas City, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee, said that if there’s a problem, it’s with legislative oversight after lawmakers have been told repeatedly about how transportation funding was distributed.
“If it’s incorrect, then it falls on the shoulders of the Legislature,” she said.
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