Kansas' school funding formula mixes state funding with some local property taxes to ensure educational equity. (Illustration by Rafael Garcia/The Beacon)

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How do you budget for a classroom when you don’t know how many students will even be in it?

That’s a challenge Kansas school districts are facing as they attempt to estimate how many students — many of whom skipped the 2020-21 school year — will return to their school buildings this fall.

Wichita Public Schools has a tentative $970 million operating budget that its school board will vote on Aug. 23.

But even that budget uses more of a high-range guess at how many students will ultimately enroll, since the district’s strategy is to budget high and whittle funding down to actual student levels to avoid having to ask taxpayers for more budget authority, said Susan Willis, chief financial officer for the district.

“We’re very concerned with enrollment,” Willis said. “Certainly, we want to educate our students, but from a funding perspective, that’s what drives revenue.”

As Kansas school boards finalize their 2021-22 budgets, The Wichita Beacon is taking a look at how school budgets come together, where the money is spent and how COVID-19 has complicated that process.

Where Kansas school funding comes from

Like most other states, Kansas’ funding for schools comes from property taxes, with the caveat that much of those tax dollars go to the state first. Adding in other sources of tax revenue, the state then distributes funding to districts at a set rate per student ($4,706 for the 2021-22 school year).

That’s one part of Kansas’ effort to make student funding equitable. From that base amount per student, schools also receive funding adjustments for students who need additional services, like special education and transportation.

The result is that a district like Wichita Public Schools, which has a large base of students but a relatively poorer property tax base compared to neighboring districts, receives more money from the state than their taxpayers pay into school funding.

For the 2021-22 school year, Wichita Public Schools is anticipating levying $159.5 million in direct local property taxes, with the rest of its $970.2 million operating budget coming primarily from state funding, some federal dollars (including COVID-19 relief) and other sources.

Not all property taxes go directly to the state, though, since districts may levy their own local taxes for items such as capital projects, which may be replacing a school’s roof or parking lot, or bonded projects like a new building. The state will still help equalize those types of expenditures by giving aid to poorer districts.

Additionally, districts receive some federal funding for categories such as special education and free and reduced-price lunch. Federal COVID-19 relief funding for schools will play a substantial part in schools’ budgets this year.

Kansas school funding challenges this year

School district budgets are based mostly on the number of students they serve, but their late-summer budgeting seasons fall at a tricky spot — schools’ fiscal years start July 1, so they technically begin the year without an actual budget in place.

The other complication is that districts don’t know how many students will end up enrolling, since budgets are mostly put together before the first day of school.

Kansas’ school funding law helps mitigate that challenge somewhat, since districts are allowed to use the higher of the preceding two years’ enrollment in their proposed budgets to smooth over any abrupt changes in communities’ populations. However, funding for categories like special education and transportation use the current year’s enrollment.

Districts’ official student “count” day is Sept. 20, so school officials rely on projections to develop proposed budgets for school boards to approve. They then revise the budgets based on the actual enrollment on the count date, as well as after subsequent audits and additional adjustments throughout the school year.

Ahead of the 2020-21 school year, many Kansas school districts had overestimated how many students would attend the district, with some families opting for alternatives like private school or homeschooling. 

So am I praying every night that students come back? Absolutely. But if they don’t, we’ll have to trim those numbers back down, because you can’t budget more than you get in revenue.

Susan willis, chief financial officer for wichita public schools

Other families simply chose to have their young students skip the school year altogether, said Mark Tallman, associate executive director at the Kansas Association of School Boards. Enrollment in those younger grades typically extends into the fall, and school districts are just now understanding how many families will enroll their preschoolers and kindergarteners for the coming year.

In Wichita, enrollment dropped by nearly 5%, from 49,375 students in fall 2019 to 46,987 in 2020, per state education department data. That led to the district having to revise the $809.1 million operating budget it had estimated in August 2020 to a more modest $740.6 million over the course of the school year.

While this year’s preliminary budget assumes many of those students will return, Willis said the district has to prepare as if not all of them will.

“So am I praying every night that students come back? Absolutely. But if they don’t, we’ll have to trim those numbers back down, because you can’t budget more than you get in revenue,” Willis said.

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Garcia is an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon. He is a Report for America corps member.