Governor veto on funding formula change a relief for some rural Kansas schools

For Fowler Schools, the veto represents survival.
Published: May. 19, 2023 at 4:43 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Kansas schools are waiting to see what, if anything, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach decides regarding Governor Laura Kelly’s use of a line-item veto on the budget for K-12 education.

Republican leadership in the Kansas House and Senate say the use of that on this bill is unconstitutional although its use was a relief for some small and rural Kansas districts to prevent a change in the school funding formula.

The current formula allows districts to use the higher of two previous years of enrollment to determine state aid. This is there to help districts facing declining enrollment – many in rural parts of the state – to address that and budget out a plan so the schools can be sustainable.

The item Kelly vetoed would have only allowed districts to use their current-or-previous-year enrollment. State data shows that would have cost some rural districts millions.

In southwest Kansas, the Fowler school district has carefully mapped out its future, building a partnership with the neighboring district, Meade.

Fowler Schools Superintendent Jamie Wetig said, “It’s just part of small and rural America. What we have done over the last few years is create a partnership beginning with athletic programs in grades 7-12. This year for academic programs for grades 7-12. As we move forward and create a long-term agreement, obviously, funding plays a big role into that.”

Wetig said with the current funding formula using the preceding two-year enrollment, it allows for a sustainable three-year plan.

“Our goal is to always keep a neighborhood school in Fowler open and that means a K-6 building,” Wetig said.

Without the veto, Wetig said the change in funding formula would derail that into a one-year plan.

State data shows that Fowler would have seen a net decrease in general funds of about $427,000.

“Then it’s another $100,000 that we would lose in our local option budget. So, it’s well over half a million dollars. Our first thoughts were we have to change course. Again, our efforts have always been to keep a neighborhood school open in Fowler. Working with Meade to create a long-term plan for that agreement, it’s all based on finances. When we saw that number, we knew we had to change course. We also know that then makes that agreement we entered into less appealing for the other district,” he said.

Fowler is among 29 Kansas districts that would have seen a net decrease and it would have impacted the funding of about 100 districts.

“We’re not alone; we just were impacted the most,” Wetig said. “But our legislature needs to look at it and find a way to sustain our small and rural schools because they’re tied to our small and rural communities.”

Sen. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, chairs the K-12 Education Budget Committee in the Kansas Legislature, said she’s pleased a large portion of the K-12 education budget was approved. She justified the change.

“We don’t want to fund empty school seats. We want to make sure the dollars get to where the kids are actually at,” she said.

Williams also said it’s a situation not only impacting rural districts. Urban schools are also seeing enrollment decreases, and she contends that the governor’s veto will cause other schools to lose money.

“We have so many of our schools that are growing. They’re accepting new students, but they’re not being paid for those students until next year,” Williams said.

Williams said she also wants AG Kobach to weigh in on the use of a line-item veto, saying the funding formula change is a policy item, whereas a line-item veto is for appropriation items.

However, for Wetig and Fowler Schools, the veto represents survival.

“Now we can keep our building open. We’re back to where we were, right? I think that for us it creates a little sense of hope. Momentum, motivation. The whole community is involved in this. Small and rural schools are the community. When you shut down a small school, you’re also shutting down the community. There’s a lot of good things going on in Fowler. You have several action committees working on housing. We have different businesses that are working on growing. You have other committees in the city that are working on bringing other businesses to town.” Wetig said, “When you remove a school, all those opportunities are tied to that. Our goal is to continue to focus on keeping small and rural schools open, keeping our small and rural school open.”

Wetig said his message to legislators is to be reaching out to small and rural schools to understand what they’re facing and what’s needed to keep them in the communities they serve.

He said, “While this is a lot about Fowler and how much we were going to lose, this is about all the district. Public education, we know, is under the microscope, it’s kind of been under attack, but Kansas education is better than the rest, and I feel like that’s what we need to focus on. Instead of trying to be divisive with education, how about coming together and work?”