Education panel denies Legislature’s COVID spending plan

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The Kansas State Board of Education parted ways with the Legislature Wednesday when it agreed not to spend $9 million in federal COVID-19 relief money that lawmakers targeted for specific programs.

The board agreed to notify the budget office and legislative research that it’s not planning to use the money for school security grants, a mental health program and another service aimed at keeping children in school.

The Legislature directed putting federal relief money into those programs when it passed a broad education bill last session that included $5.2 billion to comply with a state Supreme Court order requiring the Legislature to adequately fund schools.

The Legislature stipulated that $5 million in federal education aid go for school security grants, $3.9 million for the mental health intervention team pilot program and $100,000 for Communities in Schools, a program intended to keep kids from dropping out.

However, the agency concluded that the money for school security wasn’t allowable under federal law because it wasn’t related to COVID-19.

The agency said that federal law allows for the COVID-19 aid to be used for school building construction to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus.

However, the legislation directed that the money be used for enhanced building security and, as a result, didn’t qualify under federal law, officials said.

The agency added that the COVID-19 money proposed for the other two programs – mental health and preventing school dropouts – had already been committed before the education bill was signed into law on May 24.

Officials said programs intended for mental health and keeping kids in schools could have fit within the COVID-19 spending requirements.

However, the Board of Education had already made decisions about how the money would be allocated.

“The overriding issue is that bill was passed and signed into law in May after you, as a board, had already identified how your (federal relief) funds were going to be spent,” Deputy Education Commissioner Craig Neuenswander said.

“So, in essence you had already spent the funds that they were asking you to spend on these three programs,” Neuenswander told the board.

The contentious relationship between the Board of Education and the Legislature was evident at the end of the letter sent to the budget office and legislative research.

“The State Board of Education has expressed its desire to partner with the Legislature to improve educational outcomes for Kansas children, but it wants to be included in the legislative decision-making process and not a partner after the fact,” the letter states.

Jim Porter, chair of the Board of Education, emphasized that he wants to work with the Legislature on spending priorities for education.

“We would love to have a dialog with the Legislature and discuss their priorities prior to the decision making being made,” Porter said at Wednesday’s board meeting.

“We might even be able to accommodate some things, but we have responsibilities and we need to be at the table when those things are being discussed as opposed to things being imposed upon us,” he said.

“We welcome the opportunity to collaborate.”

Republican state Rep. Kristey Williams, chair of the House K-12 Budget Committee, questioned whether the board was interested in honoring the Legislature’s directive.

“It would have been better if they had partnered with us and followed the directive,” Williams said in an interview.

“Wherever there’s a will, there’s a way, and they chose not to,” Williams said. “It certainly leaves one to speculate on their rationale for not funding this.”