They united to end teen suicide. Now, JoCo districts have a joint legislative platform

What to say and do if you think a teen is considering suicide

Learn about common signs that a teen is considering suicide, and what to say to a teen who may be at risk for suicide and ways to keep them safe.
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Learn about common signs that a teen is considering suicide, and what to say to a teen who may be at risk for suicide and ways to keep them safe.

Johnson County’s six school districts have never worked together to push their agenda in Topeka. But this school year, one grave issue has united them: a rise in teen suicide.

In the past year, each Johnson County district had students who lost their life to suicide or seriously contemplated it.

“Mental health is really bigger than a school issue,” said DeSoto Superintendent Frank Harwood. “One of the things that we’ve talked about as superintendents is the idea that there’s a reduction in community resources, and that’s one of the concerns that we have.”

Johnson County superintendents have long met regularly to discuss issues and share information about their school districts. But this school year, school leaders united around the issue of mental health and then decided to lend their collective voice to advocate together on a number of issues.

For the first time they have developed a list of joint priorities, many of them involving funding, to present to state lawmakers this session, which begins Jan. 14.

Representatives from each district — Blue Valley, DeSoto, Gardner Edgerton, Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Spring Hill, developed the platform at the Kansas State Association of School Boards convention last month.

“One of the reasons that it’s positive is that so many of our legislators represent more than one district,” Harwood said. “A lot of times we do have the same message. And on these issues we’re all in the same place.”

Shawnee Mission School Board President Brad Stratton

“I call it amplified voice,” said Brad Stratton, president of the Shawnee Mission school board. “We wanted to amplify our voice by coming together on some key issues.”

Here are four priorities Johnson County district leaders are expected to collectively advocate for this legislative session:

They want the Legislature to expand support for behaviorial and mental health services.

School districts aren’t equipped to handle the spectrum of mental health needs for students and parents, Harwood said.

That’s why this school year districts strengthened partnerships with Johnson County Mental Health and created a Zero Reasons Why campaign.

And it’s why district leaders want to make sure the state supports such community groups that can fill in the gaps.

DeSoto Schools Superintendent Frank Harwood

Specifically, Johnson County school leaders want the state to expand a $10 million pilot program that funds partnerships between community and school-based mental health providers, which means students and families have more counselors and social workers available to them.

They are also advocating for the restoration of funds to the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services budget, and have condemned any future cuts to grants that would support community mental health centers.

“That part of it is new in the way that we’ve started thinking about things differently,” Harwood said. “How do we tackle this as a whole community rather than just a school community?”

They will oppose any effort to change the Kansas Constitution around issues of school funding.

For eight years, the state and four plaintiff school districts have engaged in a legal dispute about whether Kansas gives schools enough money to provide an “adequate” and “equitable” education to students.

The Legislature has argued its funding is sufficient; school districts have argued it isn’t. While rulings in the case, Gannon v. Kansas, continue to determine whether school funding is constitutional, some public officials have said the litigation should not be an option.

A constitutional amendment that would limit the ability of school districts to sue for more state money failed to progress last year. But the issue will undoubtedly resurface in 2019. Supporters need to convince two-thirds of the House and Senate to approve the amendment before it could go to a statewide vote.

Johnson County schools’ joint platform states that districts will “oppose any effort to amend the provisions of the Kansas Constitution that ensure the inalienable rights of the students of the state of Kansas to a quality public education.”

“It’s simply to say that we defend the constitution as it stands currently. … It says the state is to provide a suitable education for its citizens,” said Olathe school board President Shannon Wickliffe. “Anything that would change that we would be opposed to.”

They want the school finance formula to account for inflation.

Last summer, the Kansas Supreme Court once again ruled that the state’s latest school funding plan is inadequate — it does not provide enough funds for school districts to offer a quality education.

But the court indicated that it would find the plan constitutional if lawmakers added money that accounts for inflation.

Johnson County leaders support a plan recommended by the Kansas State Board of Education to add $90 million per year over the course of four years, on top of a $522 million increase in state aid lawmakers have already approved that is ramping up over the next five years.

Some Kansas Republicans would rather build a new school funding formula from scratch because they believe the state can’t afford adding inflation funding. But the Johnson County platform insists that public schools must be fully funded as soon as possible.

“If the Legislature agrees to this funding early in the 2019 session, it could resolve the current litigation and allow school districts to more effectively plan for the upcoming school year, rather than waiting until the end of the session and beyond,” the Johnson County platform reads.

Olathe school board President Shannon Wickliffe

“The uncertainty makes it very difficult for school districts,” Wickliffe said. “We’re talking about really large organizations that need to be strategic and planning around budgets, and you can’t do that when there is uncertainty about whether we’re going to be able to open school or not.”

Gardner Edgerton school board President Shawn Carlisle said inflation adjustments must be included to help districts cover the rising costs of health care, utilities, transportation and other services.

“Ignoring inflation is essentially a school funding cut,” he said.

They want lawmakers to eliminate bond caps.

Since 2016, the state has capped the amount of money that can be raised in school bond referendums for construction and infrastructure.

Groups like the Kansas Association of School Boards have opposed the cap because it could “hamper district efforts to improve or expand their buildings and facilities.” For example, Carlisle pointed out, if Wichita schools pass a bond referendum for $175 million of a $250 million annual cap, only $75 million remains for all other Kansas school districts.

Gardner Edgerton school board President Shawn Carlisle

The Johnson County platform calls for the bond cap to be repealed.

“Bond caps create potential for first-come, first-serve winners and losers across the state in regards to local voter-approved capital projects,” Carlisle said. “The elimination of the bond cap would allow Johnson County districts to plan capital projects that benefit Johnson County students without the need to consider the timing of all other Kansas school district capital project initiatives.”

Five of the Johnson County school boards approved the legislative platform. Spring Hill is expected to discuss it at a meeting on Jan. 14.

KASB mtg.jpg
Representatives from each Johnson County school district — Blue Valley, DeSoto, Gardner Edgerton, Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Spring Hill, met to discuss developing a joint legislative platform after the Kansas State Association of School Boards convention early last month. Laura Guy

Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.