Local House, Senate candidates square off in educational forum
At a forum Monday evening in De Soto, the two candidates for the Kansas 38th District House seat saw a different message in the predominance of school finance in the state’s annual budget.
For incumbent Republican Anthony Brown, Eudora, the importance lawmakers placed on K-12 education was easily demonstrated.
“It’s 50 percent of our budget,” Brown said. “It’s always on our minds. The controversy is how we are going to fund it.”
Even with its central importance, education had to be considered with other state commitments, said Brown, who is seeking his third term in the House.
In a theme she would return to throughout the forum, Lawrence Democrat Stephanie Kelton said the budget was a manifestation of the state’s values. As the state’s No. 1 budget expenditure, the Legislature should address K-12 education like it does transportation and develop a long-term comprehensive revenue program, she said.
“I’m very troubled by the way school finance is approached,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be addressed year to year.”
Brown and Kelton were among the candidates running for the two Kansas House district, two Senate districts and a Kansas State School Board district partially in De Soto USD 232 who participated in a forum dedicated to education at a Monday De Soto board of education meeting. Also at the forum were Sen. Julia Lynn and former Olathe School Superintendent Ron Wimmer, candidates for the 9th Senate District that includes De Soto.
In reply to a question of how he would support public education, Wimmer cited USD 232’s 2008 legislative platform and its call for the end of unfunded mandates from the state and more state aid for special education. He would work to create a dialogue with legislative leaders to advocate for those positions and what was needed for the state to meet its constitutional requirement to adequately fund education, he said.
“I have the proven leadership and credibility to do it,” Wimmer said.
Bond scrutiny lauded
Lynn pointed to the Legislature’s passage in 2006 of a three-year K-12 funding package, which she said allowed districts to plan better for that period. The legislation also allowed for an increase in district’s local option budgets with the approval of a district’s voters. Such votes were the “deepest form” of local control, Lynn said, while praising the wisdom of De Soto voters.
“I’m proud of the people of De Soto for scrutinizing the past two bond issues,” she said. “You (the USD 232 board) have now put a bond issue before them that is bare bones and takes care of immediate needs.”
As a former superintendent, Wimmer said he disagreed with the need to take an increase in local option budget to a districtwide vote. Those decisions should be in the hands of the local school boards. Board members would, in turn, be accountable to voters, he said.
More belt tightening
Asked how the Legislature could fund education for the 2009 fiscal year without raising taxes if the state’s property values declined in the current economic crisis, Kelton said it would be difficult with a school finance funding system so dependent on property taxes. But she disagreed with 10th District Senate Republican candidate Mary Pilcher Cook’s remark that school districts might have to tighten their belts as part of statewide cuts.
Schools were already cutting back, Kelton said, recounting a talk with Olathe District Superintendent Patricia All in which she was told that district was painting walls a color designed to save energy.
“I don’t know how much more belt tightening they can do,” she said.
The Legislature should look elsewhere to save money before cutting education, Kelton said.
Further consolidation of the state school districts, a cost-saving measure a De Soto board member suggested, was politically difficult and a challenge in western Kansas where it could force students to ride buses for more than an hour, Brown said. But he said there were opportunities for consolidation in places such as Nemaha County with its five school districts.
Short of consolidation, districts — including local districts — needed to explore more shared programs as a way to reduce costs, Brown said.
She experienced the benefits of consolidation while working with rural health care providers in the 1980s, Lynn said. Consolidate of hospitals and other facilities greatly reduced administrative costs, she said.
Wimmer questioned whether that would be the case for education with the formation of large regional districts.
“They tend to have different administrative levels so you don’t really save money,” he said.
Having worked in a district that grew from 2,500 students to 25,000, Wimmer said there was a price paid for getting bigger.
“I sensed a real difference in touch,” he said. “I no longer knew the names of all the teachers in the district.
“You have to work at it so the kids don’t suffer.”
Her approach to consolidation and the closing of school would be that of her profession, said Kelton, an economics professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She would determine if a cost-benefit analysis justified closing schools and consolidating districts, Kelton said.
Local school boards should be allowed to make a similar analysis, Brown said when asked if he supported an additional $7 million for pre-school education.
“Is that the best way to improve educational quality or should we make that money available and let you decide how to best spend it?” he asked De Soto board members.
Kelton said she supported additional pre-school spending, taking exception to studies 39th District incumbent Owen Donohoe cited questioning the long-term effectiveness of the programs.
“There’s lots and lots of research out there showing the value of all-day kindergarten and pre-kindergarten,” she said. “The research shows you get a $7 return on your investment.
“It’s a question of priorities. You pay for what you care about.”
Lynn said it was a question of whether the state could afford it and if its funding was sustainable.