On Saturday April 25, 2009, members of the South-central Kansas Legislative Delegation met with citizens at the Wichita Water Center. Nine of the approximately 25 members of the delegation attended.
When the Kansas Legislature reconvenes this week, the budget is the big issue, especially since the recent revenue forecast requires the state to either cut additional spending or raise more revenue. Since K-12 public schools consume about half of the state’s general budget, there’s discussion that school spending is at risk.
With school funding a likely topic, employees of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, showed up in force at this meeting. Kathy Busch and Denise Wren represented the top management of USD 259. Representatives of Wichita middle schools and high schools attended and were recognized by chair Rep. Melody McCray-Miller. Wichita teachers union leadership attended. Even a representative of Wichita Association of Retired School Personnel was recognized by the chair.
One estimate was that two-thirds of the meeting attendees were associated with public schools.
Surprisingly, school funding issues didn’t dominate the meeting. But regarding school spending, a question I asked, in writing, was that with the Wichita school district spending $13,000 per year per student, will potential cuts of a few hundred dollars really hurt things? Chair McCray-Miller disputed the $13,000 per-student spending figure. She asked if the question-writer — that was me — wanted to stand and clarify. She said she’d prefer that dollar amounts be vetted.
Sensing that I was in a hostile environment, and without the source of the figures at my disposal, I didn’t answer her call. Perhaps I should have, as supporters of ever-increasing public school spending are reluctant to admit the actual spending of the schools. Wichita board of education member Lanora Nolan disputed these same figures at a Wichita Pachyderm Club meeting.
Chair McCray-Miller didn’t know if the reference to cuts of a few hundred dollars referred to per-student or overall spending. I should have clarified, but the meaning of the question was clear. This was a convenient way to dodge answering the question.
Someone in the audience mentioned that this is the figure that now-Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn has used. The mention of his name drew a groan from the audience.
Later there was a question referring to the Montoy decision that forced the legislature to increase school funding. Will school spending cuts violate this ruling? Chair McCray-Miller said no, not for now. Rep. Ward went through a history of the recent level of school funding in Kansas, and concluded that the way funding has been cut disequalizes school funding and is not fair. He speculated that the economic circumstances of the state may not be justification for cutting spending beyond the levels that were agreed on.
A young man, a senior in high school, asked what was being done to keep costs of college tuition down. The answer given by Rep. Jim Ward is that state funding of higher education, as a proportion of schools’ budget, has been declining.
A question asked what measures the legislature was taking to increase employment in Kansas. Rep. Nile Dillmore spoke about a bill that provides a subsidy to companies that meet certain criteria. This subsidy is paid back by using the withholding taxes paid by the company’s employees. He did recognize that this has a negative impact on the state’s revenue.
Rep. Ward added that he doesn’t believe the state creates jobs, but the state creates an environment that makes those jobs possible. He believes that public investment, such as in public education, technical education, public safety, and roads contribute to this environment.
Planned Parenthood funding was discussed. Some legislators believe that abortion takes too much of the legislature’s time year after year. Whether this is a valid criticism probably depends on your views of this issue.
There was praise for the fact that the state has increased its minimum wage. Chair McCray-Miller said that we still need to look at a “living wage” for individuals with benefits “so they can truly enjoy the fruits of life.”