Sen. Jim Denning says school plan will add $90 million, calls Gov. Laura Kelly’s approach ‘amateurish’ (The Topeka Capital-Journal)

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning said Tuesday the governor’s bundling of school finance legislation was “amateurish” as debate erupted on the Senate floor over progress toward adding a court-ordered inflation adjustment.

The Republican from Overland Park said GOP leaders have met with Attorney General Derek Schmidt about their plans. Schmidt will be comfortable, Denning said, as long as they add $90 million to last year’s funding boost.

“We assured him that we were going to be right on the penny of the latest demand,” Denning said, “so there is no concern there.”

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, introduced an amendment that would add the inflation adjustment to legislation that addresses programs for at-risk students. Republicans rejected Hensley’s maneuver with complaints about bypassing committee work, but it forced debate on school funding.

“I know some of you don’t like the process, but it is what it is,” Hensley said. “I have a right to offer this amendment on the floor.”

A Senate panel held a hearing on Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed education budget before breaking it into two pieces. Denning said it was a mistake to include the inflation fix within $4 billion of funding elements.

“She had the whole entire school budget in there, in addition to the latest demand for inflation,” Denning said. “Obviously, that was very amateurish.”

Kelly’s spokeswoman, Ashley All, said the governor isolated education from the rest of her proposed budget in an attempt to streamline the process.

“The Legislature has debated this issue for years and has a deadline to meet,” All said. “The governor offered a plan, and now it’s time for legislative leaders to stop name calling and focus on meeting needs of our children and schools.”

Denning also inadvertently referred to the governor as “Senator Kelly.”

“It would be nice if my colleagues would refer to Gov. Laura Kelly as governor since she did win an election last November,” said Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Democrat from Lenexa who switched party affiliation after the election.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg who serves as chairwoman of the committees handling education policy and funding, said the panels could produce a plan by mid-March.

She objected to Hensley’s attempt to add new money to base state aid because she wants to ensure schools are spending the funds in areas that address achievement gap problems identified by the Kansas Supreme Court.

“It’s easy to just throw it in the base, but what outcomes are we going to get?” Baumgardner said. “We need to help school districts.”

She said schools added 2,003 full-time positions this year, but only 736 of them are licensed educators. She said enrollment increased by 517 students.

Baumgardner also pointed to figures that show 8,500 students who arrived at Kansas community colleges, about 34 percent, had to take remedial courses in 2017.

She expressed interest in expanding a mental health program and extending funding that pays for all high-schoolers to take the ACT. If the state continues that funding, Baumgardner said, ACT has agreed to let all freshmen take a pre-test for free, which could provide useful data about the progress students make.

“This is why we have to take a hard look at the best place to put that $90 million in inflationary spending,” she said.

Senators gave first-round approval to Senate Bill 16, which allows nonprofits to receive funding that supports at-risk students, and Senate Bill 128, which scales back the volume of crisis drills required in public schools.

Baumgardner said the Legislature previously overcorrected the absence of crisis training by making schools conduct nine crisis drills each year, in addition to practicing for a fire and tornado.

New legislation would set a minimum standard of three crisis drills, four fire drills and two tornado drills. Senators adopted an amendment by Sen. Bruce Givens, R-El Dorado, that allows the state fire marshal to grant exemptions for special needs students.