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Eagle editorial: Talking points, fighting words

  • Published Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, at 12 a.m.

A detailed memorandum that Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, prepared for House Republicans signals interest in tackling school district consolidation and targeting higher-education administrative costs and highway spending. His talking points would be taken as fighting words in various quarters of the state.

The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that the 12-page “Know the Facts” document was meant to help House Republicans speak with one voice on issues including higher education, K-12 schools, employment, taxes, transportation and the state employees’ retirement system.

The Merrick memo counsels GOP lawmakers to talk about K-12 education spending as $12,600 per student – counting local and federal as well as state dollars, and lumping in pension contributions and capital expenditures and interest. Gov. Sam Brownback used similarly self-serving math when he wrote in the Sunday Eagle that “state spending on K-12 education has increased by more than $200 million” since he was elected.

Merrick’s memo argues: “The important number is the total amount spent. The Democrats try to fool you by focusing only on part of the amount spent. Watch out when they claim the reduction was in base state aid per pupil or state funding. If they mention either, grab your wallet.”

But it’s the $3,838 base state aid per pupil figure that schools depend on to fund their operations, and that is central to the lawsuit pending in the Kansas Supreme Court (per-pupil funding has declined from $4,438 in 2008-09).

Merrick also asks: “How about a little commonsense reorganization?” His memo notes that economies of scale allow Wichita’s USD 259 to spend less than $13,000 each on more than 46,000 students while Healy’s USD 468 spends more than $25,000 each on its 67 students.

But one Johnson County Republican’s “commonsense reorganization” would be seen as an existential threat in many rural Kansas communities, where the public school can be the town’s heartbeat. The trauma of the forced mergers of the 1960s was such that consolidation proponents in the decades since have faced verbal abuse and even death threats. It’s unclear whether the money to be saved would be worth the war, or whether Brownback would support forced consolidation amid his efforts to thwart depopulation and to jump-start rural counties’ economic growth. Plus, districts have been merging in whole or in part on their own for years, whittling the state’s total from 304 in 2001 to 286 now.

The talking points also refer to 136 percent tuition hikes over the past decade and “a substantial increase in administrative costs” of 78 percent at state universities – suggesting Merrick isn’t ready to revisit the 2013 Legislature’s counterproductive cuts to higher education.

In addition, the memo says that “more funding for roads does not equal economic development.” That’s not what lawmakers believed in 2010 when they strongly endorsed a 10-year, $8.2 billion transportation plan, or when they opted this year to retain a 0.4 percent sales tax to fund it as planned. A Legislature hostile toward highway spending would be a big change for Kansas – and not a welcome one for many business leaders and local governments.

If the House’s deeds follow Merrick’s words, the next legislative session could be at least as contentious as the past two.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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