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Kansas education department will continue to distribute millions in bus funding, despite audit that says state law doesn't allow it

A student prepares to board a First Student bus at Quail Run Elementary School in this file photo from June 2011.

— The Kansas State Department of Education will continue distributing money to pay for school districts' bus operations under the same formula it has been using for decades, despite a recent audit that said the formula is based on a law that was repealed decades ago.

"We will do that until we’re instructed otherwise," State Board of Education Chairman Jim Porter, of Fredonia, told reporters after a special board meeting Jan. 26. "I understand that bills have been introduced in both houses to clean up the misunderstanding."

That special meeting was called in response to a letter from Republican leaders in the House and Senate who had urged the State Board to suspend the department's top school finance officer, Dale Dennis, pending an independent audit of how transportation aid to school districts had been distributed.

The board, however, voted 9-1 to support Dennis' continued employment.

That report, which was released in early January, said an additional $45 million in transportation aid had been given to some larger, densely populated school districts over a five-year period by using a formula repealed in 1973 that provided a minimum, per-pupil amount of money to fund their bus operations.

Agency officials, however, said they were instructed by legislative leaders at the time to continue using the minimum funding formula in order to prevent those larger school districts from being under-funded.

The decision to continue using the formula, however, has raised some questions in the Statehouse and in the public about how the agency can legally continue distributing money in a way that is no longer authorized by law.

But lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, as well as other education advocates, say there is good reason for it.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, wrote in a blog post Friday that the transportation formula is so complex, it's not entirely clear whether the Department of Education actually violated current law.

The formula is based on what's called a "curve of best fit," which uses a graph that plots the actual cost of each district's busing program on one axis, and the population density of the district on another.

"This could allow different interpretations by KSDE and legislative leaders on how to best implement that intent of the law – which is to reimburse districts for mandatory costs of transporting students to and from school," Tallman wrote.

Area lawmakers, meanwhile, say it's the Legislature's job to tell the Department of Education what it wants the agency to do.

"It's mainly telling the Legislature, 'Tell us specifically what you want us to do,' because for some time it's been kind of a moving target," Rep. Jim Karleskint, R-Tonganoxie, said in an interview about the agency's decision to keep using the old formula.

"But I think the State Board and the State Department want specifics from the Legislature, and I think it's incumbent upon us to provide that direction," he added.

Karleskint is a member of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, a group that was formed last year specifically to draw up a new school funding plan in light of a Kansas Supreme Court decision that said the system in place in 2016 was unconstitutional.

Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, agreed.

"The audit report does not determine what we do here," she said in a separate interview. "It’s what we read, and we make changes because someone else has to decide on the policy and what to do."

In the House, Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, introduced a bill Jan. 29 that would change the transportation aid formula to reflect what the department has been doing anyway since the 1970s.

The issue, however, most likely will be resolved when lawmakers pass another school finance fix to address the Supreme Court's most recent ruling from Oct. 2 that said the law passed in 2017 is still unconstitutional.

Movement on that issue, however, has been slow this session, despite the fact that legislative leaders appointed a special interim committee that met in December to review information and get the process of fixing the constitutional problems started early.

The Supreme Court has given the state a deadline of April 30 to submit briefs explaining what the Legislature has done to correct the funding system.

But Karleskint said lawmakers are waiting on a report from consultants who have been tasked with conducting a new cost analysis to determine how much funding it will take to comply with the Supreme Court. And that report isn't due until March 15.

In addition, he noted, Gov. Jeff Colyer just named the chairman of the K-12 Education Budget Committee, Rep. Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, to be his administration's new budget director, which means he will soon be leaving the Legislature.

"I really don't see a lot of decision-making and votes being taken between now and March 15," Karleskint said.

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