Block grant to go into effect 2015-16 school year


Natasha Vyhovsky, News Editor

Public school districts in Kansas, including Blue Valley, will receive temporary block grants for two years beginning the 2015-16 school year. The law providing block grants, signed by Gov. Sam Brownback on March 25, will replace the current school finance formula as the state works to create a new one.

Eileen Hawley, communications director and press secretary for the Office of the Governor of Kansas, said every school district in the state will receive block grants next year. The block grants work by providing the districts with a flat block of money over two years. Each respective school district will have freedom to decide where and how to allocate funds.

According to Blue Valley Assistant Superintendent Mike Slagle, districts will receive the same amount of money they generated through the finance formula for the 2014-15 school year.

For Blue Valley, this means the block grant should provide approximately $157 million over the next two years, according to Slagle.

Slagle said the way block grants work will allow the district more freedom regarding how funds are spent, as there is no pre-existing formula deciding how much of the funds are allocated to certain areas.

Specifically, Hawley said the freedom allows districts to choose how to spend money between bond and interest funds and the district’s general operating fund.

“If you had money that you could only use to build a building, that was all you could use it for,” Hawley said. Now, with the block grant, school districts can choose how to spend that money.”

However, Slagle said the block grant does not take into account the district’s demographic changes.

“If we get more kids, we’re still going to have the same amount of money to educate them on,” Slagle said. “If we have high risk needs or more non-English speakers, we are going to have to educate them on the same amount of dollar as we did before, whereas under the old formula, we’d be weighted accordingly.”

Slagle said the district will have increased demands next year, including more students to educate, more teachers to hire and an increase in the cost of health insurance.

Julie Brewer, a mother of two students in the Blue Valley district, said she is concerned that the block grant does not take into consideration if a district has some healthy growth, especially in Johnson County where districts see a lot of healthy growth.

“It tries to create a very simplified solution for something that I think a little more thought and energy needed to go into,” Brewer said.

While the block grant does not change to accommodate unpredictable factors, Slagle said the district supports block grants for the short-term because of the belief they will provide more stability than the current finance formula.

“I think that, for us, it minimizes the risk for two years over what cuts may have happened with the formula,” Slagle said. “We calculated the risk, we calculated the reward and felt that, for the Blue Valley school district, knowing that you had ‘X’ amount of dollars promised to you over the next two years was more favorable than the roller coaster ride we may have been taking on with the funding formula.”

Brewer said the problem with public education funding is a lot of the money the state puts into education goes to fund the teacher retirement program.

“To call that “funding for education” is a little bit too generic of a term for that,” Brewer said.

Slagle said the state includes the retirement funds as “funding for education” in order to appear to be giving more money to the classroom, although schools never see that money.

“The state will wire us that money and then take it right back,” Slagle said. “They’ve done it for an accounting maneuver so they can actually make it look like more money’s going to education than actually is being spent in the classroom.”

Part of the state funds for block grants will go toward teacher retirement funds, however
Slagle said the $157 million he mentioned earlier does not include teacher retirement funds.

Ultimately, Brewer said when that money is restricted to its designated fund, as it is in the block grants, it holds districts responsible for using the money the way it is meant.

Slagle said there is a chance that the state could face revenue issues that would affect the state’s ability to fund the block grant to the promised amount. The state is expected to face close to a $600 million deficit for the next fiscal year, according to numerous news sites. Slagle said the district’s concern is the degree to which the block grant will be funded in consideration of state funding.

“Even though the block grant may be here,” Slagle said, “the question that I have is, because of the funding side of things, will it be compromised so that instead of getting 100 percent of what the block grant says you’re supposed to get, maybe you only get 90 percent?”

Regardless, Slagle said the district is not worrying yet.

“I’m confident in what we’ve been told that the governor and our representatives will find a way to fund this block grant formula,” Slagle said. “They simply must, because for us to have any further reductions in education will not be healthy for Blue Valley or any district in the state of Kansas.”

If the block grant does face issues on the state funding aspect, Slagle said the district’s short-term strategy would be to look at reserve funds to fill in, if and where state funding cannot. If reserves are not available, the district would look at any “additional tools” to plug the hole.

Slagle said the main concern is not the 2015-16 school year, but the 2016-17 school year and the budget cuts the district might face at that point. He said the district has not yet put a process in place to answer the question of how they would handle that situation.

“We’re hoping that we’ll be able to continue education the same way that we have been the past year,” Slagle said. “Again, it all depends on the revenue side of things and, if they don’t solve that problem, we may have a different set of problems come 2015-16, for sure by 2016-17.”

As these factors change and costs increase, the district will need to make up for those costs somewhere. He said the additional costs without the additional revenue will be made up through the use of reserve funds and/or budget reductions and allocations. Either one, Slagle said, will mean less money goes toward things like career enhancement for teachers.

“I think it’s difficult for everybody, but it’s too early to tell exactly what the nix of solutions are going to be,” Slagle said.

The Kansas Legislature will decide April 29, after a Veto Session, what the budget will look like. By the middle of May, the Blue Valley School District will find out what the state budget looks like, and Slagle said district officials hope the revenue comes through for the rest of the year so that the state can meet their block grant obligations.

At the end of the two-year period, Slagle said, it is “anybody’s guess” how the new formula will look.

“We hope it’s going to be based on empirical studies on what it costs to educate a student,” Slagle said, “because we know that in past studies that have been done by outside agencies, there needs to be a whole lot more money put into public education.”

*We will add more information as we receive it.

Last updated: April 20