On Friday, an independent consultant told Kansas lawmakers the state would need to increase school funding from $500 million to $2.1 billion over the next five years. That topic dominated the discussion at the third Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce legislative coffee Saturday morning.

Kansas Sen. Caryn Tyson and Rep. Blaine Finch both spoke about the school funding study that was presented by Texas A&M University professor Lori Taylor. The study was initiated after the Kansas Supreme Court found the state did not provide adequate and equitable funding.

Both Tyson and Finch said they believed there were errors in the report in which the state paid $285,000 to Taylor to conduct.

“When the report became public at 1 p.m., it wasn’t what individuals had expected,” Tyson said. “Before the report was made public, the Democrats had a press conference telling how horrible this idea was and how bad it was that we were going to listen to this person on the results of what we should do with the our K-12 education system. But I guarantee you at 1:10 p.m. their story had changed completely about how wonderful this report was and how much we needed to increase K-12 funding. To me, the facts are, there are errors in the report.”

Finch agreed that there were issues with the report, which considered enrollment numbers, regional economies and student demographics and found that the state would need to increase funding by a minimum of $500 million over the next five years. Two other scenarios suggested if the state wanted to reach 90 percent proficiency in math and reading, the increase would need to be around $1.8 billion, and to meet college-ready goals, the increase would need to be $2.1 billion.

“There are some mathematical and computation errors in the study,” he said. “I think it’s too soon to say whether it’s completely flawed or not, but anybody that puts reliance on it, that reliance is misplaced. I would say overwhelmingly it appears that the study is a disappointment in terms of the accuracy that came with it and the analysis that came with it.”

Finch said the state cannot sustain the funding it called for.

“It calls for funding numbers over five years and not all at once and cautions the Legislature not to put all the money in at once as if we could,” he said. “It calculates that we are spending a little over $4 billion on K-12 so if you were to go the full extent of that report and add another $2 billion would essentially be taking all the state’s generated funds and putting them into schools, leaving nothing for anything else. The interim committee that I chaired, we looked at making some across-the-board cuts to try to come up with $600 million and those were devastating enough. Talking about closing prisons, state hospitals, laying off massive segments of the state workforce.”

Another common theme from both lawmakers was that conversations need to take place to determine just what schools really need and what the state can afford.

To me, the bottom line is we have to deal with school funding,” Tyson said. “We need to address the language in the constitution or else we will continue a cycle of lawsuits. We have three or four schools in the state of Kansas, there may actually be more, that save $5 out of the money that they are budgeted for every student that they have and put it in an account for future lawsuits. So right there, they are using your tax dollars to sue for the future. The lawsuits need to be because of cause. It’s just out of control what we’re doing. If we would address the constitution and address school funding in a common sense manner, what is needed and not what is wanted, I think we could get some extremely positive results for the state of Kansas. And we also need to realize when we do that, one size does not fit all.”

Finch said the he believed the constitution needed to be addressed and all parties should be on an even playing field.

That’s been a pretty consistent theme for me at these coffees this year, that we need to talk about what changes we need to make in our state constitution so that we don’t find ourselves in this situation every 8-10 years,” Finch said. “That doesn’t mean I think we should totally write the courts out of it, that doesn’t mean that I think we need to do something punitive or something that’s not thoughtful, but I do think it’s time for us to reexamine the rules of the game and figure out if we can come up with a better system as well as addressing the current need.”

When asked from the audience just what they feel needs to be added to school funding and where they think that money will come from, Finch said there needs to be a conversation about just how much is needed.

“I think the ultimate number is somewhere between $400 and $600 million,” he said. “The state will have to come up with some amount of funding and that is where that range is. All of the options need to be on the table, we need to talk to the plaintiff districts, we need to talk internally about what kind of funding is reasonable. I had asked the question of Dr. Randy Watson about how much the system can actually absorb every year. In other words, just dumping money into schools doesn’t always lead to wise spending decisions and even administrators will tell you they would rather have stability about how much they will get on a multi-year basis so whatever that number ends up being it will be over multiple years and not just in one year. I think we have to remember that last year and this year, there were hundreds of millions of dollars added to K-12 education. So there’s already been an investment.”

Tyson said it comes down to a matter of priorities, not only as a state but also for the education system.

“We have tried repeatedly to make it mandatory, 65 percent of funding go to the classrooms and the teachers and we cannot get that passed. The only thing we could get passed is that 65 percent of funding is a goal to go to the classroom and the teachers. So we do need to have the tough conversations.”

Both added that they believe Kansas has a very good education system and that increases should be used to enhance it.

“Our teachers do an exceptional job of educating our kids,” Finch said. “Our scores, stacked up against nationwide scores are excellent. Our schools are generally in the top ten in the nation. Our graduation rate is five points above the national average. We do an exceptional job of educating children in this state, but the conversation we have to have is how much is enough and at what point is it more than the system can bear? If we fund this study at the level it suggests, you would be looking at probably a 40 mill tax increase to fund that through property tax. The state cannot sustain that kind of taxation. There are other needs beyond K-12. Right now it’s 54 percent of our state budget. It is a priority. It isn’t sustainable at 100 percent and likely isn’t sustainable at 60-65 percent so what number can we agree on is sustainable and we can still fund education.”

Tyson agreed and said the people of Kansas cannot sustain another property tax increase.

“I’m very proud of my Kansas education and most of us are. We have individuals that are trying decide, do they pay their tax, do they buy food or do they buy their medicine,” she said. “One veteran came in and said he can no longer afford his home because of his property tax. There is not an appetite for increasing property tax to pay for this. We are maxed out on our taxes.”

OSAWATOMIE STATE HOSPITAL

The fate of Osawatomie State Hospital and mental health in Kansas was another popular topic for the lawmakers. Tyson said the Senate Ways and Means committee met Friday and there are many in Topeka who oppose the hospital

“I want to put that on your radar in a big way,” she said. “We have legislators from Wichita, legislators from Johnson County that their priority is not Osawatomie. We need to form a coalition, a strong coalition, and be a strong advocate for the hospital and for mental health.”

In his opening statement, Finch said he was proud of the work his committee is doing on creating crisis intervention centers for at-risk youth as an alternative to youth prisons. He was questioned by an audience member about how intervention programs would be established if they closed the state hospital.

“We would be looking at using the money we saved by closing down some of the juvenile prisons and using that money instead to create crisis intervention centers where we can do that,” he said. “The possibility of privatizing Osawatomie State Hospital is still out there and being discussed. They have lobbyists that are making the rounds in the state Legislature and trying to convince us why this is a good idea in their opinion. I’m not sold that it’s a good idea quite frankly. We need to be investing in mental health facilities and mental health beds for people who are in crisis and people who need inpatient treatment.”

Finch said he was disappointed with the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services (KDADS) for the way they have approached mental health in Kansas.

“We need to be investing in our community mental health centers so people that need outpatient services can get them,” he said. “I’m very frustrated with KDADS at the state that they have not moved swiftly to get all the beds reopened at Osawatomie. In my opinion it’s a dereliction of their duty. I believe it’s precipitating a crisis so that they can privatize the facility and try to make a case to get someone in there and build a 100 bed facility and operate it privately. I disagree with that approach.”

Tyson agreed that privatization is not a good approach. Tyson said she believes Miami County would work as a partner with the state to make a new facility a reality, but there are still roadblocks at the state level.

“The reality is we’ve got 20 senators of 40 that are from the five largest counties in the state,” she said. “And we have 125 state reps, 25 of those state reps touch one county alone, Johnson County. Eight of the 40 senators touch one county, Johnson County. We are outnumbered in leadership and in the caucus and they have been having meetings about what the options were for the state. Yesterday, the chair of Ways and Means announced that we need the regional facilities and we may not need to build anything or to do anything in Osawatomie. I don’t know if this is a reality check, if she was just speaking off the cuff or if someone misheard her, but the reality is, I think we need to increase the number of beds in Osawatomie.”

The next legislative coffee will be April 14 at in the commission chambers at City Hall, 101 S. Hickory St., Ottawa.