Commission considers school efficiency proposals

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A new commission looking for efficiencies within Kansas' public school system raised questions Thursday about how the state helps districts educate their poorest students and finance construction and infrastructure projects.

But the K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission was waiting until Friday to consider some of its most controversial proposals, including one that would offer school districts incentives to merge or cooperate.

The two-day meeting began with a discussion of "at-risk funding." School districts receive about $1,750 in extra funding for each student who is poor enough to qualify for free lunches, costing about $347 million statewide, Legislative Post Auditor Scott Frank said. But an audit of a random sample of students receiving the free lunches in the 2005-06 school year found that 17 percent — or about 23,000 students — weren't eligible. Frank said another 6,900 students may be eligible but don't apply.

Commission members asked whether it would be fairer to allocate the money based on the number of students who struggle on state tests or by using U.S. Census poverty data.

Sam Williams, the Wichita businessman who chairs the commission, said he could see an outcry if people think the commission wants to take the at-risk money away and pre-emptively urged people to "settle down."

Commissions also talked about a possible study of the "equalization" payments handed out based on districts' property tax base. Not all districts qualify for the payments that are used to pay for bonds and interest. But those that do can have the state pay up to 71 percent of their costs, depending on the districts' wealth.

Commissioners noted that there is no limit to how much the state can be asked to chip in. Shawnee Mission School District Superintendent Jim Hinson, a commission member, described the payments as an "unfunded liability for the state."

Williams suggested that there should be a review process, but the commission didn't immediately authorize a study.

Commissioners also requested a report on why districts carry over unspent money for use in future years. Commission member Mike O'Neal said Legislative Research has determined that the statewide carryover balance in a fund earmarked for helping poor students has grown from $17.4 million in the 2009-10 school year to $40 million this year.

Legislators created the commission this year, tying it to a proposal that would increase aid to poor school districts by $129 million for this school year in order to meet the Kansas Supreme Court mandate in March's education funding lawsuit decision.

Members of the commission include superintendents, former state senators, principals and the head of a conservative think tank. It is separate from an efficiency taskforce created by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2012 and filled mostly with accountants.

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