Overland Park & Leawood

Blue Valley group to push schools, raise awareness

A group of Blue Valley School District parents has formed a new organization to help fellow parents and voters in the district take on what they see as anti-public education bias in the Kansas Legislature.

Calling themselves Stand Up Blue Valley, the parents said they plan to focus on legislation that affects how public schools are paid for, how districts retain quality teachers or threatens local control of schools. They also said they want to get more local voters caring about education issues and then heading to the polls.

“Our purpose is to inform the community about issues impacting education and defend our award-winning schools and ensure a legacy of educational excellence,” Julie Coker, a member of the group’s steering committee, said at the group’s first public forum, held Thursday evening at the district’s administrative headquarters in Overland Park. “The parents and patrons need to understand how they own a piece of this problem and part of the solution as well.”

Stand Up Blue Valley began forming last summer in response to the parents’ frustration with the continuing debate over how to pay for public schools in Kansas, as well as other educational policy decisions coming out of the Legislature in recent years.

“The climate in Topeka is unfriendly and downright scary for public education,” steering committee member Patty Logan told the more than 50 attendees at Thursday’s forum. “The members of our steering committee know first-hand that our school district is efficient and effective, and the vast majority of families in Blue Valley agree with us.”

The six committee members stress that while they have plenty of criticism for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and other Republican leaders in the Legislature on how they have handled education issues, the group itself is nonpartisan, not connected to the district itself and won’t make recommendations to voters on individual legislator or school board elections.

Instead, they plan to provide regular updates and alerts about legislation moving through the House and Senate that has the potential to affect Blue Valley schools. They also plan to build a public database of how state lawmakers representing neighborhoods within Blue Valley voted on important education decisions.

“Our mission statement is to inform and activate and empower the patrons of Blue Valley but not tell you who to vote for,” said committee member Elizabeth Arnold.

One of the group’s key arguments is that local school boards are the most accountable to voters and should be given greater leeway by the state to operate their districts. Group members said they think the Legislature regularly tries to “micromanage” the districts, such as this year’s proposal to block school districts or other local governments from using public dollars to inform voters about upcoming bond issues.

The group is particularly concerned about voter turnout for the Aug. 2 Republican primary, noting that while the winners of these races often go on to win the general election in November relatively few people actually come out to vote for them. Besides encouraging more people to get registered to vote and actually go to the polls in August, the group is encouraging voters to sign up for advanced mail-in ballots.

Given the timing of the primaries, they said some families may be out of town trying to squeeze in a last-minute vacation before school starts or are stuck at home with the children and unable to go to their polling place.

Members of the group said they noticed during the run-up to last spring’s district board of education elections that many of their friends and neighbors didn’t know who was running or even that there was an election, a breakdown they said spoke to the need for greater communication and awareness. Already, the group has almost 800 likes on its Facebook page.

While there are a number of statewide grassroots organizations that have sprung up in recent years to advocate for public education, such as Game On for Kansas Schools and the MainStream Coalition, the leaders of Stand Up Blue Valley said they wanted to stay as local as possible.

For example, group members said they have warily watched discussions on proposed legislation to consolidate smaller school districts in Kansas. They said it’s emblematic of state lawmakers’ “meddling” with local school districts and something they in general oppose. But they haven’t made it a priority to alert parents about the bill largely because Blue Valley would not be affected.

“We really wanted to develop our own voice and focus on the things that are really impacting or will be impacting Blue Valley rather than statewide,” Coker said. “Because of the noise level, we think our constituents can only care about so many concerns.”

During Thursday’s forum, state Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican from Fairway, talked about the challenges facing lawmakers in Topeka, such as balancing the state budget and dealing with procedural moves designed to make it harder to amend controversial legislation.

Rooker acknowledged the frustration many in the audience said they had with getting their legislators’ attention on education issues but encouraged them to continue making phone calls and sending letters and emails.

“It’s really important that you keep that pressure up,” she said. “They may not let you know it matters, but they’re human beings and if their inboxes are consistently full of your points of view as constituents, it matters.”

David Twiddy: dtwiddy913@gmail.com.

On the Web

For more information, go to standupbluevalley.org.