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Namesake father in school financing case driven by helping children

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, June 8, 2013, at 5:27 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.

The Rev. Jeff Gannon is not a public policy issue.

He is a father of three. He does what might be called Good Samaritan work.

But among the most divisive public policy issues in the state today is “Gannon v. State of Kansas,” a case the Kansas Supreme Court will decide by the end of the year.

The case has disappointed conservative state legislators, who have tried not only to pay the state’s bills after the recession but also tried, they say, to increase prosperity by cutting taxes.

If the Supreme Court decides in favor of Gannon, it will likely order the state to pay as much as an additional $450 million to finance public schools.

Conservative Republicans such as Rep. Steve Brunk from Wichita are not ruling out the possibility of defying such an order. Senate President Susan Wagle also raised that prospect in a speech this past week.

“I think there’s enough votes now in the Senate and House that if the courts rule for Gannon, we might just say to the court that deciding expenditures is not your responsibility, thank you, and we’ll take it from here,” Brunk said. “I say this politely, but there’s a mood to give the courts the finger, so to speak.”

Gannon – the court case – has inspired language like that.

The real Gannons are two schoolchildren from Wichita. Their father is a church pastor who says many of his congregation members from Chapel Hill Fellowship, near K-96 and East 13th Street, are conservative Republicans.

And in the poor Wichita neighborhood of Planeview, and among people who help children at Jardine Middle School, Gannon and his congregation members are considered heroes.

• • • 

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Gannon, it will mean that the courts will dictate to an elected legislature how to spend public money, Brunk said.

That happened in 2005, when a similar lawsuit was decided. The Supreme Court, ruling that the Legislature had failed to meet its constitutional mandate to provide “suitable” funding for education, ordered the state to provide more money – $600 million more, between 2005 and 2010, before the state began cutting again after the recession.

School districts disappointed about those cuts filed a new case. With Gannon’s assent, they named his children, Luke and Grace, as lead plaintiffs. Gannon had previously met school officials connected to the case while speaking at a public forum about the issue.

Brunk had never heard of Gannon’s Good Samaritan work in Planeview until he was interviewed for this story. He said he was impressed, but would like to pose a question.

“Who is doing the best job down in Planeview of helping people in need?” Brunk asked. “Is it the government? Or is it the people from Rev. Gannon’s church with good hearts?

“It sounds to me like it’s the people with good hearts.”

• • • 

City and school officials and officials from Wichita charities say that what the Chapel Hill congregation has done in Planeview is extraordinary.

It was mostly Gannon’s idea. Starting in 2009, Gannon and other Chapel Hill members talked the Lord’s Diner into opening a new branch in Planeview, feeding the hungry every day.

Gannon and other congregation members, primarily a laid-off accountant named Charlie Schwarz, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the Hunter Health Clinic build a new building and widen medical services to poor children and adults.

The principal at Jardine said last year that Chapel Hill people donated school supplies to 40 to 50 needy children there. They helped pack Kansas Food Bank backpacks to give kids food on the weekends. They mentor children, volunteer in classrooms.

“If we have a need and mention it, we get what we need,” Principal Lura Atherly said last year.

Chapel Hill members even bring pickups to do neighborhood cleanups, said Janet Johnson, a City Hall neighborhood assistant.

“I’m not real big on religious organizations and other do-gooders who swoop in and impose their middle-class values on the poor, and then leave,” Johnson said. “But Jeff and his church are different.”

Many of the Planeview poor are Hispanic, Asian or other minority races. Many kids live in single-parent homes. Some are illegal immigrants.

Yet many Chapel Hill members, Gannon said, are white, affluent, conservative. Average household income last year was about $85,000. Some members have houses worth $350,000 to $400,000. The church is doing a $6.9 million expansion.

While Gannon and his wife, Meredith, have always sent their children to Wichita public schools, “the vast majority of people in our congregation send their schoolchildren to Andover, or to private schools,” he said.

Gannon began all this with a sermon on Nov. 29, 2009, in which he told church members he wanted them to be “apprentices” of Jesus, not just “admirers.”

“But when I talk about the lawsuit, I am speaking only for myself and not my congregation,” Gannon said. “I have many in my congregation who adamantly disagree with my stances on these problems.”

But when they talk about cutting budgets and spending as a way to create prosperity, it has a familiar ring to it, he said.

“I’ve heard it all before. And it doesn’t work.”

• • • 

“For the record, I was raised in a home in Montana, a very Republican state,” Gannon said. “My mother was a member of the John Birch Society, an organization with members who make libertarians seem liberal in comparison.

“My mother went to all the meetings, and thought that if you even said the word ‘government,’ you were swearing.

“I have been exposed to right-wing ideas all my life.”

Those ideas include cutting income taxes to spur growth, as the Legislature did last year. That decision followed years in which aid to schools was cut, he said.

People who promote this move, Gannon said, are usually “speaking from a position of advantage, from a position of plenty rather than want.”

The flaw, Gannon said, is to assume the playing field in America is level – that everyone going to school will do well if they just work hard.

But when children show up at school lacking parents who read to them at home, when they lack food for a weekend, the theory falls apart, he said.

“The only institution we have that actually makes the playing field level is public schools,” Gannon said. “And now these people want to cut them.”

• • • 

“Rev. Gannon probably … has a good heart,” said Brunk, the legislator. “But when he talks about what we’ve done, and when he hears the words ‘cut, cut, cut,’ I’m not sure what he’s getting at.”

The recession lowered revenue. Legislators had to cut many things, he said.

“Since the recession, we’ve cut law enforcement, maybe far more than we should have. We’ve cut social services. We’ve got a serious problem with KPERS (increasing costs in the state employee retirement fund).

“And yet with education, what we’ve done is spend, spend, spend.

“And when we ask the other side, ‘Well, how much more do you need?’ They say, ‘More.’ So we ask, ‘How much more?’ and they say, ‘More.’

“ ‘Well, give me a number!’ ”

“ ‘More!’ ”

“And they ask for 10 more, and we give eight.

“And they call that a ‘cut.’ ”

• • • 

The state’s contribution to public schools, according to the Kansas Department of Education, was $3.131 billion for the school year 2007-08, the year the recession began.

It dropped to $2.867 billion for the 2009-10 year. It was $3.185 billion for the 2011-12 year.

That last number actually went up, but district officials maintain expenses went up, too. As a result, district officials have said, they had to cut programs and staff.

Since 2009, the year after the recession started, the Wichita district has seen many cuts, said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman. They include $199 million less in general fund operating dollars to the district; capital outlay funds reduced by $20 million in the last four years because of legislative cuts, and the elimination of 213 positions – 104 teachers, 11 para-educators, 74 operational support people, 24 administrators.

Wages were frozen from 2008 to 2012, she said. Driver’s education was eliminated. So were middle school police officers, fifth-grade strings and high school librarians.

• • • 

David Trabert is a father of two sons who went to public schools.

He is president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a nonprofit group, influential among some conservative Kansans. It advocates for free markets and personal liberties, and Trabert and his organization do a lot of research on education.

“I don’t doubt that he is sincere,” Trabert said of Gannon. “But he’s saying … that if you aren’t for spending a lot more on schools, then you are trying to defund public schools.”

The worst part about the debate about financing, Trabert said, is that no one on either side even debates the real issues, such as whether children are getting a good education, whether education could be improved, whether administrative costs are spent wisely and whether more charter schools might inspire more opportunities for impoverished children in places like Planeview.

“If we could just get ordinary people in a room and show them the challenges, have them look at the real problems, we’d probably reach consensus,” Trabert said.

Take the issue of administrative costs, as just one example, he said.

The Kansas Policy Institute has pointed out that Kansas has 105 counties, but 286 school districts. Some, like the Wichita district with more than 50,000 students, are large; others have only a few hundred students. Each district has its own administrative staff, superintendent, purchasing system, computer system and bus system.

Could we combine these systems? Trabert asked. Probably. But raise that idea in the political realm, Trabert said, and watch what happens.

• • • 

One of the legal quirks about Gannon v. Kansas is that neither Luke nor Grace Gannon will play any role in the case other than be named as plaintiffs in the documents. They are merely “place-holder” names in the lawsuit, even though they are students who will suffer the consequences or enjoy the benefits of whatever is decided in the public policy realm.

The real players in the lawsuit are the school districts – including Wichita, Hutchinson, Dodge City and Kansas City, Kan. – that initiated the suit. So Luke, who attends Heights High School, and Grace, who attends Stucky Middle School, were not interviewed by lawyers for the case, said John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs. The Gannon kids also did not testify in court, he said.

One thing that Brunk, Trabert and Jeff Gannon all agree on is that in the public policy debate, and in the government debate, and in the court debate, few people doing the talking ever talk about the actual children involved.

“My challenge,” Gannon said, “is this: Is it about the taxes, or is it about the children?”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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