Monday, April 21, 2014

HAWVER: How much are we really spending on education?

By MARTIN HAWVER, At the Rail | 12/9/2013

Did your mother ever put a little slip of paper next to your plate to show you just what that sandwich cost?

Whew. Hope not.

Did your mother ever put a little slip of paper next to your plate to show you just what that sandwich cost?

Whew. Hope not.

But that’s essentially what the Governmental Accounting Standards Board has done for local units of government nationwide, and, for us Statehouse habitués, Kansas.

The rule? That local units of government — and school districts — that use generally accepted accounting principles will record in their financial reports the amount of money the state spends on their workers’ pensions and designate it as a liability. They don’t have to pay for it, just list it. Right there in public.

It’s not often that the public gets excited about an accounting principle, but if you are a Kansas governor — or legislator — who thinks the state is spending enough money on K-12 education, well, it’s cause for some celebration.

That small-print accounting rule means that school districts are generally going to have to record as a liability in their budgets the money that the state spends on employee pensions through the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.

Now, this isn’t a big deal for most Kansans. Anyone remember the last time you had an animated discussion of school district financial statements over drinks? Again, whew.

But for conservative legislators and the governor who want public credit for the roughly $300 million that the state spends on pensions for school employees, those numbers on school district financial statements are priceless.

They show that the state is spending more of its money on school districts than shows up during the annual school finance bill debate. They want legislators to consider that behind-the-scenes spending on pensions that doesn’t show up on school district budgets to be part of the debate.

It’s subtle, of course, because the state still pays the employer portion of KPERS pensions for teachers and other district employees. But it will be talked about, and at some point conservatives will use that pension money as a way to encourage school boosters to quiet down a little when seeking more — or even level — spending on K-12.

It might mean that some districts will decide that, well, maybe they can put another desk or two into a classroom, or maybe charge a small fee for students who want to take debate.

Or, with the numbers in hand, conservatives might not be subtle. They might want to include the pension system payments for school employees as part of the Base State Aid Per Pupil, since, without pensions, there aren’t going to be any teachers, anyway.

See how these accounting board rules will ripple through the Statehouse this year?

Anyone else wonder whether those accounting board members’ mothers put a little note beside their plates before sending them off to play with their calculators?

Martin Hawver is publisher of Hawver’s Capitol Report. Visit his Web site at www.hawvernews.com

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