"The quarter-million dollar classroom."
It's a concept that has been popping up in discussions regarding the school funding debate, ever since Gov. Sam Brownback noted in his State of the State Address the people of Kansas provide more than $12,500 per K-12 student — or about $250,000 for a classroom of 20.
While $250,000 may seem like a large amount of money per classroom, the Kansas Association of School Boards believes that number can be misleading, and local education officials seem to agree.
"It is easy to look from the outside and question the amount of money spent on schools," said Megan Nagel, sixth grade science and ELA instructor at Santa Fe 5/6 Center. "Yet looking from the inside, the perspective is much different. The money is not only spent on classrooms but also providing students with a well-rounded education."
"School finance is complicated for a reason," added USD 373 Superintendent Deborah Hamm. "... Not all students require the same supports for them to be successful and some programs cost more to implement and maintain, and yet educators attempt to meet the needs with the limited resources that actually get to the classroom."
Where the money goes
Hamm said the "$250,000 per classroom" is a rough estimate and would hold true for Newton if you took all of the funding received and divided it by the number of students. However, some courses are more expensive than others, such as the Career and Technical Education Program at the high school versus kindergarten.
The entire $250,000 does not necessarily stay in the classroom, either. It helps to pay for a variety of school expenses that may or may not tie directly into teaching or learning: insurance for buildings and vehicles, electricity, water, building repairs or remodels, and gas for buses. The money also supports programs, positions and services: librarians, physical education, fine arts, computer labs, social workers, special education, nurses and lunch programs.
"As we look at the $250,000 per classroom, it is important to keep in mind that it is not just the classroom but the support which goes to keep a school and community producing high-quality graduates," Nagel said.
As the costs for providing services rise, USD 373 has looked for ways to save, such as reducing staff through attrition, delaying purchases and maintenance, or asking teachers to share resources. However, it's not always enough, educators said.
"The funding available is only so much and the demands for what our students need — highly effective teachers in every classroom, current resources, accessible technology, challenging courses, career and technical courses, extra support for literacy — are so great," Hamm said.
Rep. Don Schroeder, District 74, said he understands the challenges schools face when it comes to funding.
"When the ($250,000) amount is broken down to see what it costs to maintain the building, heat the room, provide a teacher and possibly an aide, fixtures, desks, computers, etc., the cost is not extravagant," he said. "Teacher pay has slipped compared to other states, and it is important to keep the pay up in order to attract good teachers."
"When you deal in aggregate totals, the angle is often to get folks to believe that there must be great waste to squander that much money," said USD 373 school board member Barbara Bunting, who also is running for the office of state representative for District 72. "A look at the individual costs, as KASB has done, is more useful."
The Associated Press reports the Kansas Supreme Court set a July deadline for legislators to make changes to correct flaws in funding aimed at equalizing funding between poor districts with low property valuation compared to wealthier districts.
Rep. Marc Rhoades, District 72, said the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision on the school funding lawsuit has shifted the conversation from money-only to adequacy related to educational outcomes.
"All money made available to districts — grant funds, administrative costs, KPERS, everything — counts toward adequacy," he said. "Which makes sense, since local districts and school boards, not legislators, determine how and where money is spent.
"... From the time reoccurring lawsuits began, over a decade ago, any discussion beyond more money has been characterized by the education establishment and their attorneys as anti-education. There are many educational successes taking place in public schools. We want to fund more of these positive, proven outcomes, and I am hopeful we can."
Schroeder said the consensus seems to be placing additional funding into the schools to equalize the opportunities for children.
"There will be much discussion as to how much, but the courts have set out guidelines that can be fairly easily converted to numbers," he said. "My hope would be that additional money put in by the state would mean a nearly equal reduction in property taxes at the local level."
Local officials said they hope there will be a resolution to the issue soon.
"I think the Legislature needs to do its duty and make the system constitutional," Bunting said. "... The problem has been that the state has not provided adequate resources for Newton to accomplish its mission. Some kids are being left behind. All kids can achieve if we have adequate resources to do our job."
"I believe strongly that students in Newton deserve the same educational benefits that students attending districts in more affluent communities in the state have," Hamm said. "There should not be disparity between students in one community and students in another community.