Kansas school districts are trying to budget for some pretty big unknowns right now.
No one knows if it will even be safe to have students in schools in August, and everyone’s worried about the $650 million hole COVID-19 blew in the state’s budget. Administrators are worried that if the state’s economy doesn’t rebound soon, they’ll have to make deep cuts in the middle of next school year.
“There’s not a superintendent that isn’t preparing for something like that,” said Glen Suppes, the superintendent of the Smoky Valley Public Schools in Lindsborg. “We continue to hear optimism from (state education) Commissioner Randy Watson, and that schools are a priority for the governor.
“But I’m anxious to see how the tax revenues are going to come in.”
‘You’re talking very major cuts’
The fiscal year 2021 budget that Kansas lawmakers passed in March, before the pandemic hit, looked pretty good for public education. K-12 schools got an additional $120 million, money that the state’s high court has said needs to be spent on schools following a years-long funding battle.
“The problem is that budget, when it was passed, was based on numbers last November that have dramatically changed,” said Mark Tallman with the Kansas Association of School Boards.
Because of the pandemic, Kansas is facing a huge budget shortfall. In an April 20 memo, the Kansas Legislative Research Department forecasted an 8% overall decline in revenue for the coming fiscal year.
Tallman said in a state that spends more than half its revenue on education, there’s no way cuts won’t touch K-12 schools.
“There are certainly things the governor and legislature could do, but all of those are kind of bad choices. In a simple world, if you just ... cut 8% out of the budget, you're taking very major cuts,” Tallman said.
In a big district like Shawnee Mission in Johnson County, an 8% cut would be the difference between ending the school year with a $7 million surplus — and a $13 million deficit.
And that’s before factoring in raises, which are top-of-mind in Shawnee Mission after a protracted contract dispute with the teachers union that dragged on for most of the school year that just ended.
“I guess I’m one of those that’s really concerned about the revenue,” board member Brad Stratton said during a budget workshop last week.
Stratton, who was first elected to the school board in 2015, wants to budget cautiously for the upcoming school year because he knows what happens when revenue collections fall short: Education pays the price.
“KSDE (the Kansas Department of Education) is presenting one number, and then there’s the reality our legislators and governor are going to have to face,” Stratton said.
Factoring in cuts and the coronavirus
Until lawmakers tell the state Department of Education otherwise, though, schools are stuck with the optimistic, pre-pandemic numbers.
But Kansas school superintendents can’t afford to be quite so optimistic. Suppes, the Smoky Valley superintendent, needs to make decisions about staffing now before the fiscal year resets July 1.
“Are we going to be paying coaches that may not coach a sport in the fall if we're shut down? Are we going to be paying bus drivers? And if we don't, yes, the district saves money, but on the other hand, there's another family without an income,” he said.
On top of that, Suppes says superintendents still don’t know what school will look like in the fall after the pandemic wiped out the final two months of this past school year.
“Can we touch the playground equipment? Can we sit in the lunch room together where we have plexiglass between us at all times?” Suppes said. “And how will we even pass through the corridor safely?”
In a normal budget year, Wichita Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Susan Willis runs four or five budget scenarios. This year, she said she’s running 15.
Not only is Willis trying to account for how school might be changed by the coronavirus, but she also is trying to factor in the timing of potential budget cuts.
“What does it mean if they let us start the year with the increase that is due under the formula, but they come in with a cut in December? What are our options at that point?” Willis said.
A new kind of challenge
Willis said Kansas schools are used to dealing with financial uncertainty. There was the Great Recession, the tax cuts imposed by former Gov. Sam Brownback and the prolonged school funding fight.
“But what makes this extremely challenging is we’re not as familiar with how we adapt the academic school year ... if we have to social distance,” Willis said.
Kansas has gotten $2 billion dollars from the federal government to pay for coronavirus-related expenses, like protective gear and ventilators. But that money isn’t meant to shore up state budgets. That kind of aid could still come — it did during the Great Recession — but according to Marguerite Roza, states shouldn’t count on it.
“We can’t even sort of look back at the last recession and say, ‘Here’s how we know this plays out’ because this is different,” said Roza, who runs the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, a research center for education financial policy.
Roza said states that delay making inevitable budget cuts could fare worse than states that act now to restrict spending. Missouri has already slashed K-12 funding by more than $130 million. Colorado has warned schools that significant cuts are coming.
But Kansas lawmakers have historically waited for the revenue consensus to come out in November before balancing the budgets.
“If states wait longer to revise their budget projections or announce any K-12 funding impact, that will send districts further into the future before making any spending changes, which could require deeper cuts,” Roza said. “The idea is if you can’t start saving money now, you’ll have to save more and more suddenly.”