Archive for Thursday, February 24, 2005

Fate of state vocational training funds unsure

February 24, 2005

Eudora's schools are filled with children of the "Knowledge Generation," according to Eudora USD 491 superintendent Marty Kobza.

"These kids are going to have to be trained with specific skills," he said.

That's why Kobza is concerned that the Kansas Legislature may be moving toward either reducing or eliminating the funding of vocational education in public schools.

The Kansas Supreme Court has given the Legislature until April 12 to come up with a new plan that would adequately fund public schools. In December, the Court ruled that Kansas schools were constitutionally under-funded.

Rep. Anthony Brown, a Republican legislator from Eudora, said a plan discussed in committee last week would increase base funding but would allocate little or no money to vocational training. Brown said that in Eudora schools, that increase in the base would not make up for the decrease to vocational training.

"The increase in the base would not be enough to offset the large commitment they are making with vocational education," he said.

Brown said he and other legislators had expressed concerns about a decrease to vocational education, and an adjustment was made that would allocate 1 percent of a school district's total budget to vocational training.

If that formula were applied to Eudora USD 491's 2004-2005 general operating budget, the total amount allocated to vocational training would be just more than $65,000 per year. The actual dollar amount for vocational training in this year's budget is more than $760,000.

The Legislature had so far not approved any plan to better fund schools, and Brown said the final product would likely be different than what has been discussed most recently.

Kobza said the district would not easily let vocational programs go.

"We would really have to take a look at it," he said. "It has been a priority for us."

The Eudora and De Soto school districts jointly offer vocational training to high school students in culinary arts, auto collision repair, health career explorations, agriculture and graphic design. There are several certifications that are given that enable a high school student to enter the workforce and begin a career right out of high school, such as CNA certification.

If state funding for those programs was decreased or eliminated, Kobza said the district would have to consider how to shift money in its own budget if the programs continued.

"We would have to find the money somewhere else, which would affect another program," he said.

Kobza suggested the Legislature needed to consider the long-term economic repercussions of schools no longer offering vocational programs.

"The Legislature is going in the opposite direction of where they need to if they want the Kansas economy to grow," he said.

Last week, Kobza said he listened to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius address the House and Senate, asking both groups to come up with a plan that would be a long-term solution to the problem of inadequate school funding.

Kobza said one long-term solution would be to consider a formula that would adjust the base dollar amount that each district was given per student each year, to be consistent with the rate of inflation.

Eudora USD 491 was given a little more than $5,000 per student for the school year from the state. The amount was based on a base dollar amount of $3,863 per student, with several variables considered to come up with the remaining money. Among those variables was the total number of students in the district, the number of students taking free meals at the school and the number of students who speak English as a second language.

However, Kobza said the base amount was not adjusted for inflation, but at the whim of the Legislature. He said while costs to operate schools are continually going up with inflation, money in the base is hovering around the same amount every year.

He said the lack of funding has forced the Eudora district to rely on its local option budget. But in a town as small as Eudora, there can only be so much money raised from the local mill levy. Kobza said this makes Kansas schools unequal because larger school districts have more funds available from local property taxes than smaller schools.

Kobza said that ideally the local option budget should only be used for what it was intended. In 1994, local option budgets were put in place to allow school districts to raise money through local property taxes to expand and enhance school programs that the school district wanted to sponsor. Kobza said it was never intended to be used for basic operational expenses.

"We've had to go to the local option budget just to keep up with inflation," he said.

Kobza said if the system is not somehow changed, the gap will continue to widen between the rich and poor districts in the state.

Kobza said some of his fears included the Legislature defining a suitable education to include reading, writing, math and social studies.

"All other programs would be considered extras," he said.

Those other programs would include music, art, woodworking, home economics and others.

"I think we all know how valuable those programs are in the type of society we live in," Kobza said.

Kobza was anxious to see more money for education from the state, and he said he believed legislators did want to do what was right for the state. He said he did not believe legislators were deliberately against funding schools.

"I believe they are pulled in many different ways," he said.

For example, Kobza said Kansas' aging population required increased funding for Medicaid, with no extra money coming in.

"We're competing for the same dollar," Kobza said. "New revenue means taxes. It's not popular for any legislator to raise taxes."

He said there had to be a balance between "taking care of those people that helped to build our society on one hand, and taking care of the future of our society on the other."

Kobza encouraged parents and others to stay informed and to let legislators know what they think a suitable education entailed.

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