Government & Politics

As issue of closing Kansas’ schools catches fire, candidates feel heat

Candidates feel heat from voters over Kansas school funding issue

Republican incumbents and challengers hear from voters as they were canvassing district neighborhoods.
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Republican incumbents and challengers hear from voters as they were canvassing district neighborhoods.

The temperature was already scorching as Kansas Senate candidate John Skubal, sweat soaking his back, rang the Overland Park man’s doorbell.

The atmosphere quickly grew hotter.

The two men shook hands. Soon, 36-year-old voter Chris Confer was venting with impassioned indignation.

“I am a Republican through and through,” he told Skubal, 69, an Overland Park councilman seeking the 11th District seat. “But I do not appreciate, I do not appreciate, I do not appreciate the governor — my party’s leader — going to war with the Supreme Court.”

By that, Confer was talking about Kansas’ public schools and the possibility they might be shut down, something that has happened only once in modern U.S. history.

The Legislature faces a June 30 deadline set by the state Supreme Court to fix inequities in school funding between richer and poorer districts. Lawmakers are to convene Thursday in a special session called by Gov. Sam Brownback.

If no remedy is found, the court could block $4 billion in education funding, forcing schools to close.

Superintendents from five Johnson County districts — Olathe, Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, De Soto and Gardner Edgerton — last week urged lawmakers to infuse schools with $50 million to satisfy the court’s order.

“I have a daughter with Down syndrome,” Confer, a lawyer and father of two, said after his conversation with Skubal. “We are absolutely dependent on the schools to provide her with physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy.”

Added to that, he said, is his overarching outrage at what he considers the Legislature’s obstinacy. “You don’t get to thumb your nose at the Kansas Supreme Court,” he said.

Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools spokesman David Smith called on the "adults in the room" to support public schools as he spoke before a joint meeting of the House and Senate committees on judiciary on Thursday, June 16, 2016, in Topeka.

Miles away in western Lenexa, where Republican state Sen. Greg Smith was campaigning in the 21st District, the issue was the same, but voter Robert Bens, 55, had a different take.

“I do think the courts overreached on that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s up to the courts to say how much you can spend.”

Bens added that he had no concerns over whether Kansas’ schools would open. “No,” he said. “I’m not worried.”

Hardly debatable is how in this election season — with all 40 state Senate seats and all 125 House seats up for grabs — incumbents and their challengers in the Republican-dominated Legislature are getting an earful from potential voters. The primary election is just six weeks away.

While viewpoints may differ, Republican candidates walking door to door in Johnson County insist that two prime issues have come to occupy voters’ thoughts: Kansas schools in the cross hairs, and dwindling state revenue after income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013.

“It’s a nightmare,” Steve Eugster, 57, said at his door in Overland Park. His wife is a teacher in the Blue Valley School District. “I mean, really, we don’t have a budget to educate our kids. … The whole budget, it’s a mess. It’s a fiscal mess.”

In early June, an automated telephone poll of 433 Kansas registered voters by John Zogby Strategies asked voters what “presses your buttons and drives your choice of a candidate.” Respondents said education topped the list.

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Voters have been expressing frustration about school and state revenue problems for months, said Skubal, a self-described moderate Republican. He said he and his supporters have knocked on more than 4,000 doors in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Jeff Melcher in the 11th District.

The Star recently followed Skubal as he walked through neighborhoods around 141st Street and Antioch Road. (The Star also asked to accompany Melcher, but he declined, saying he did not think his constituents would be comfortable talking to a reporter. Melcher also declined a request for a telephone interview.)

Either Melcher or Skubal will face Democrat Skip Fannen in the general election in November.

On this particular day last week, Skubal and a campaign worker set out about 5:30 p.m. Residents were returning home from work. Mostly Skubal rang bells and knocked on doors.

“We get very, very few respondents on a night like this,” he conceded. By “nights like this,” he meant searing hot and humid.

When residents did not answer, he left literature and moved on. Where residents chose to talk, they were vocal, with strong views often forged by a personal stake.

“I’m a teacher,” said Amy Newsum, who has taught for 32 of her 58 years. She greeted Skubal at her door cheerfully.

“Sometimes Brownback is our friend; sometimes he’s not,” she said.

She described herself as a “conservative Republican,” in relative contrast to her husband, whom she called “a die-hard conservative.” Considering herself perpetually optimistic, she said she thought schools would open on time, but she also said some of her colleagues are deeply worried.

“There are some,” Newsum said, “that really feel that we may be stymied to the point where we won’t open. So it makes us all concerned.”

A few doors away, a mom in the Blue Valley School District was taking groceries from her car.

“Everybody in this community values public education, big time,” said the woman, who has three young children.

Raised Republican and educated in the Shawnee Mission School District, the woman said she and her husband moved back to the Kansas City area from Chicago in 2005 in part because of the quality of the schools. She asked that her name not be used, uncomfortable sharing personal political beliefs with the public.

“Let’s face it,” she said of the strongly Republican state. “Whoever wins the Republican vote in the primary is going to be the winner. So the community is kind of pushing everyone to show up for the primary and vote for the more moderate, common-sense candidate. Go back to the way it was.”

She continued, “We’re concerned for teachers’ salaries, concerned about class sizes growing too big, concerned about programs being cut, enrichment programs, resources being limited.”

Eugster said his vote, also Republican, would go to whoever would fix Kansas’ deepening fiscal problems.

“Do something about the budget crisis we’ve got,” he said. “Do something about the education system we’ve got. Do something about funding the basic necessities of the state.”

Since the Legislature and Brownback made broad cuts to individual income taxes four years ago, the state’s coffers have shrunk.

Brownback pushed through cuts in individual incomes taxes and for certain limited liability corporations in part to attract new employers to a pro-business, tax-friendly Kansas.

Before the tax cuts took effect, Kansas was bringing in just over $2.9 billion in income tax revenue. In fiscal year 2014, which ended June 30, 2014, figures show the state brought in about $700 million less.

The state brought in about $2.3 billion in fiscal year 2015 and seems to be on a similar pace this year, collecting about $600 million less than before the tax cuts.

Voters see the state’s revenue problems extending to its ability to fully fund its schools. Newsum and others said their school concerns aren’t limited to Johnson County, but extend to those across the state.

“We have to make it equitable,” Newsum said of school funding.

In responding to voters, Skubal tends to position himself as a candidate who builds coalitions. As such, he chose not to be critical of either the Legislature or Brownback, whom he called a good man and whom he supported in his first election.

“I’m sure these people aren’t bad people,” Skubal said of conservative Republican lawmakers. “They have just done something that’s put us into a budget quagmire. We have to get back to a sound tax policy. Your expenditures can’t be up here and your income down here. It doesn’t work. I mean, it’s no different if it’s your home or my home.”

The income tax policy that reduced revenue, he said, “has played itself out.”

Regarding schools:

“The children in western Kansas, just like the children in eastern Kansas, need an education,” Skubal said. “But until we fix the budget, we can’t fix a whole lot else.”

He told the story of being invited into the home of one voter.

“Her husband was there. And he worked for a school district,” Skubal said. “She has a catastrophic illness, and they were worried about keeping their health care. That’s wrong. That’s wrong. … This lady was worried about not being able to get her cancer treatments because we have this going on.”

Melcher, in his campaign literature, maintains that schools remain well-funded and that the state’s financial situation is more sound now than in past years, a result of tax changes and reining in government spending.

In western Lenexa, Smith said that if voters are deeply concerned about schools, they’re not telling him.

“I’m really not hearing much about that,” Smith, who is a Shawnee Mission schoolteacher, said before he set out one day last week. “Things are driven, obviously, by what’s in the news. … The terrorist attack we had in Orlando. That has come up.

“There has been some discussion about school finance. If I rely on what I read in the newspaper, or see in the media, you would think that most people think the sky is falling. That’s not what I’m hearing.”

Nor does Smith think the issue is dire. A new and better funding formula needs to be found, he said. He also said it’s hard to argue that schools are hurting when voters notice students getting new iPads.

“I don’t have any problem spending money on education, but we need to know what we’re spending it on,” he said.

After Smith rang Bens’ doorbell and handed him some literature, Bens stayed at his door to talk to a reporter. He said he wasn’t concerned that schools wouldn’t open. Nor does he see them as being underfunded. His top issue isn’t education but state finances.

“Spending and taxes,” he said. The problem isn’t with cutting taxes, he said, it’s with not cutting enough state spending. Bens thinks the state should have gone deeper.

“I think they did it backwards,” he said. “They should have cut spending to the bone, and then lowered taxes. I think doing the tax cuts first was probably a mistake. But I’m all for less spending and, likewise, lower taxes.”

A few blocks away, Claud Hobby, 61, an early retiree whose children went to public schools, said schools are not even on his list of state concerns.

“Not really,” he said. “I’ve always thought it was a little bit out of bounds with the state Supreme Court stepping on the Legislature and what they do. I understand the gist of it, but I just think it’s overreach.”

His issue, he said, is escalating property taxes.

“I would always like someone to bring up a bill where they freeze property taxes for people older than 65,” Hobby said. “That, to me, as you get older, is a very important thing.”

Then there’s state revenue.

“I got frustrated with Brownback a few years back,” Hobby said. A longtime Republican, he now is registered as independent. “I agree with cutting taxes. But we don’t have the revenue other states have. … I think it’s time to end the experiment, also. We’re never going to be an income tax-free state like Texas, Florida, Nevada. I’ve lived in Texas and Florida, and it’s great. Texas gets you on property taxes. Florida has lousy schools and lousy roads.

“But we have good roads here, and I have generally been happy with the schools.”

Later in the evening, in neighborhoods around 79th Street and Lackman Road in Lenexa, Dinah Sykes, who is trying to unseat Smith, walked another part of the 21st District.

Two Democrats also are running in the district: Michael Czerniewski and Logan Heley.

Sykes, 39, is a professional chef and a former PTA president.

In that role, she said, she witnessed the loss of teachers and staff and growing class sizes.

“My second-grader at the time had 30 kids in his class, and they were jam-packed in that room,” Sykes said.

She said she saw parents and teachers being asked to take on more of the financial responsibility for school supplies that were once part of a standard public education.

“I got frustrated and decided to run,” said Sykes, who describes herself as a “traditional Republican,” as opposed to either a moderate or conservative Republican.

“What is going on is not financially conservative,” she said regarding school funding. “We are playing a shell game, shifting money from one thing to the next.”

It is for that reason, Sykes said, that voters tend to get confused over numbers that indicate that schools in Kansas, overall, are receiving more money than in the past.

When funds used for capital improvements, such as new buildings, as well as contributions for the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System are included, education spending has risen over the past decade from about $4.7 billion to $6.1 billion.

But other numbers show that schools’ operating budgets for teachers and classrooms have stagnated or decreased, prompting cuts.

That’s left voter Katrina Georgiana, 45, a U.S. Air Force veteran from Lenexa, skeptical of all politicians who, she thinks, bend facts to suit themselves and their agendas.

She’s concerned about schools and taxes, she said.

“All the extremists are getting all of the air time,” Georgiana said. “My understanding is that there’s not going to be enough money to even start a school year. … Quite frankly, quite frankly, it’s going to bleed everyone, you know, if things don’t get under control.”

As for how that issue or others will affect how she votes:

“You know,” she said, “it might depend on how many people actually come to my door. Pound the pavement.”


Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

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