Many unhappy with $129M Kansas school budget bill - KCTV5

Many unhappy with $129M Kansas school budget bill

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Kansas lawmakers are finished with a bill to answer a judge's order to better fund poor school districts, but not everyone is happy with it.

The plan narrowly approved by the Republican-dominated Legislature late Sunday night provides Kansas' poorest districts an additional $129 million during the next school year. It's the full amount needed to reverse recession-driven cuts that led the state Supreme Court to declare last month that there were unconstitutional gaps in funding between poor districts and wealthier ones.

The bill does not include other budget cuts that schools will have to figure out how to absorb.

"It's very concerning to me. I don't know what it would look like or how it will play out," said Mary Stewart, the principal at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, KS.

More than half of Stewart's students need extra resources for language barriers, and that takes money.

"If we're not successful, then our community will be less successful because they will not be educated as they grow and develop here in Kansas City, KS," she said.

Sumitra Sharma is one such student Stewart is talking about. The 20-year-old is a senior at Wyandotte High School.

"I can fulfill my ambition, my dream and support my family," Sharma said.

As a Nepali refugee, she started high school two years late.

"Because of my future, my school work, because of my career, they came to America," Sharma said.

She's one of several dozen at her school who are 19 and older or part-time students. It's a population for which the school district will no longer receive special money after a series of budget cuts to at-risk kids.

Sharma said she isn't sure legislators know what it's like to walk in her shoes.

"If they're going to tell them, ‘Go out from the school, you can't come here,' what are they going to do?" she said.

For KCK, at-risk funding cuts total just more than $451,000. Overall the district will gain only about $16,400 from all of the changes in the bill.

The deal does include a slight raise to the cap of how much districts can tax residents, but some districts, including Shawnee Mission, still want to raise more money.

"We are a property rich, but revenue poor. That's what this case is really about. So patrons of our school district have said the cap from the state is unconstitutional with the federal constitution. That's what this is about," said Jim Hinson, the Shawnee Mission School District superintendent.

Lawmakers have until July 1 to get a plan in place.

The bill also sparked a whole new debate that has nothing to do with funding and instead impacts teachers' rights.

Teachers who went to Topeka, KS, to protest being stripped of their due process rights with the new bill used a silent signal of raising their arm.

"In easier words, that means teachers have now lost the right to advocate for their students without being afraid of being terminated," said vocal music teacher Avaree Norman, who teaches in Kansas City, KS.

For 48 hours straight teachers, like Norman slept on the floors and listened patiently in the state's capitol. For newer teachers like her, the soon-to-be bill comes with an uneasy tune.

"It scares me a lot to think that we'd be able to be terminated without any explanation of why or any chance to improve," Norman said.

She joined teachers outside the Senate chambers after the vote. Many senators chose a back door and few faces of their opposition in the groundbreaking decision.

Some lawmakers said they are in support of the change because they have some concerns about unions.

"I've made no bones about it that I don't like what the unions are doing to our education system. I think they are damaging the system rather than enhancing it," said Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Republican from Leawood, KS.

Melcher said due process limits administrators from finding and keeping the best teachers in the classrooms. He voted for the bill and said a $129 million funding approval needed the policy attached to it.

The lawyers who brought the suit on school funding say they have some concerns about the plan lawmakers approved.

Attorney John Robb said the bill contains little new money for schools, and taking money from some programs for at-risk students and changing local property tax provisions could actually widen the gap between rich and poor districts. Robb is still looking at the overall plan to see if it will meet the court order.

After legislators finished the package late Sunday, they adjourned for three weeks. The bill is now waiting for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's signature who hasn't said how quickly he would sign the package.

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