- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 19, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Four top Republican legislators who will help decide whether Kansas school districts receive extra state aid asked superintendents Wednesday to provide information about how their districts have “used efficiencies to improve outcomes in the classroom.”

The GOP lawmakers sent a letter to the superintendents of the 38 districts filing applications seeking about $15 million in additional aid under an education funding law enacted this year. The law set aside $12.3 million to address extraordinary needs during the current school year.

The law leaves decisions about what districts receive to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and the top eight leaders of GOP-dominated Legislature. They plan to meet Monday at the Statehouse to review the applications.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who also will be involved in the decisions, said the four Republicans are injecting politics into the discussion. Hutchinson Superintendent Shelly Kiblinger, whose district is seeking an extra $461,000, said the letter implies the applicants aren’t efficient and is “incredibly offensive” for those with increases in student numbers.

“I’d really like to send our legislators a questionnaire and ask them to prove that they’re really being efficient,” Kiblinger said.

The letter asks the districts to provide the additional information by 5 p.m. Friday. The Associated Press obtained a copy shortly after the State Department of Education distributed it.

The letter was signed by House Speaker Ray Merrick, of Stilwell; Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, and the chairmen of the Legislature’s two budget committees, Sen. Ty Masterson, of Andover, and Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., of Olathe.

“Specifically, please provide five ways that your school district has increased efficiencies especially those that have led to better outcomes in the classroom over the past three years,” the letter said.

Ryckman said the letter is designed to solicit information that can be shared with other districts and lawmakers. He said he believes none of the applicants will have trouble spelling out initiatives.

“I will never apologize for trying to be more efficient with taxpayer dollars,” Ryckman said.

The new law scrapped Kansas’ old per-student formula for distributing more than $3.4 billion in aid, replacing it with grants based on districts’ aid during the last school year. The Hutchinson district and three others are challenging the changes in a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court and also arguing that Kansas doesn’t spend enough money on its schools.

Ryckman and other Republicans who drafted the new funding law argue that it provides stable funding and predictability for both districts and the state. But critics note that it doesn’t automatically adjust a district’s aid to account for changing conditions, such an increase in student numbers.

The applicants for additional aid represent more than 13 percent of the state’s 286 districts. Their requests exceed the dollars available by nearly 23 percent.

The law sets aside the extra funds for student enrollment increases, to cover unexpected drops in local property tax revenues and address other unanticipated needs. Hensley said asking districts to detail past efficiencies goes beyond the law and “an implied threat.”

“It’s saying, ‘You’d better come up with information that we want, or else you’re not going to get your funding,’” Hensley said.

But David Smith, spokesman for the Kansas City, Kansas, district, which has the largest request of more than $2 million to address enrollment increases, said it is taking the letter “at face value.”

As for producing a list of five efficiencies, Smith said, “We could probably give them 50.”

The four GOP leaders wrote that it is important that the extra dollars are available for districts that “truly have an extraordinary need.”

“We want to see what they’ve done in the past that can be shared with other districts,” Ryckman said. “It could be good, useful information.”

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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