t's like a tale of two numbers ― one used by proponents of more funding for public education to argue that the state's current funding levels are unconstitutionally low. The other frequently used by their opponents to claim that public schools already spend too much.
That first number, the base state aid per pupil, is the same for all school districts in Kansas ― currently $3,838, down from a high of $4,433 in 2008-09. That number is currently in mediation after a lower court decision ordering the Kansas Legislature to increase it.
The other number, total spending per student, can differ greatly, even among the schools in Leavenworth County. It's a number derived from taking a district's total budget ― including costs for in-classroom instruction, capital outlay costs and debt, among others ― and dividing by the total number of students.
Leavenworth Public Schools, for example, spent a reported $18,266 per student in 2011, while the Lansing School District spent $9,446.
“Our spending per pupil is the lowest in the state of Kansas,” Lansing School Superintendent Randy Bagby said of the spending figures earlier this month, crediting the district's increasing valuation and enrollment growth.
Statewide, the average spending per student was $12,282 for the 2011 school year. Regardless of per-student expenditures, the Kansas Center for Economic Growth stated in a paper earlier this year that on average public schools in Kansas spend about 62 percent of their total budgets on in-classroom instruction, with another 6 percent used for student services like guidance counselors, social workers, nurses and speech pathologists.
Kevin Gullett, chief financial officer for the Leavenworth Public Schools, said he's seen a number of comparisons and fielded a number of questions as to why the Leavenworth's per-student expenditure figure is higher than those of the other nearby districts. He warned against using those raw numbers to draw too many conclusions.
“When you compare, you have to compare like-type things,” he said, before pointing to a number of factors as to why the district's spending is so much higher than nearby districts.
Gullett said the Leavenworth district runs a virtual school, for one, which increases the cost per student.
He also said the district's percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunches is higher than many area districts. At 60.5 percent as of the 2011-2012 school year, he said the district's closest peer in this regard is Wyandotte County's Turner School District, where 70.4 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunches.
“It's a proven fact, or at least the Supreme Court of Kansas agrees with us, that it costs more to educate children who are at-risk,” with a factor of that designation often includes those students eligible for free and reduced lunches, he said.
Page 2 of 2 - The last, and perhaps largest, reason for the total spending being higher for Leavenworth ― and the reason that makes them unique among comparable districts ― is the Leavenworth County Special Education Cooperative that serves all of the public school districts in the county: Fort Leavenworth, Lansing, Leavenworth, Easton, Basehor-Linwood and Tonganoxie.
Under the agreement for the co-op, there are four directors for the different districts serving the co-op, all of whom report to their respective superintendents.
“Because we're the largest district in the county, the stewardship of the special education cooperative is our responsibility,” Gullett said.
Taking the responsibility adds $ 19,847,431 in total expenses to the district's ledger sheet each year.
“I believe that to say well, 'how much does Leavenworth spend for the kids?' you need to back that portion out,” Gullett said.
That would leave a per-student expenditure of $12,650, he said ― closer to the state average.
“We feel pretty good about that,” he said.