A school finance summit scheduled for next week at Wichita State University was postponed one day after leaders of a conservative think tank expressed concerns about not being invited to participate.
Organizers of the event, originally scheduled for May 7 at WSU’s Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs, say they postponed it because the Kansas Legislature would be in session at the time and lawmakers could not attend.
The event was designed to talk about a new block grant funding plan for schools and discuss how it is likely to affect classrooms and the community.
“It was postponed because of timing,” Nancy McCarthy Snyder, director of the Hugo Wall School, said Tuesday. “We scheduled it to coordinate with Public Service Recognition Week the first week of May, and it turned out that wasn’t a particularly good date.”
The change was announced the day after Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, e-mailed about two dozen legislators to tell them about the summit and said that the institute was not invited to be part of it.
So far the event has not been rescheduled.
“We said, ‘This event is taking place, we asked to be included, we weren’t, and we think it’s going to be a one-sided event,’” said James Franko, vice president and policy director for the institute.
Franko would not share the e-mail with The Eagle because “it was a private correspondence between Dave and the legislators,” he said.
Trabert said he sent the e-mail after asking to be included as part of the summit and being told the panel was set. He said Tuesday he was glad university officials postponed it, and that he hopes the institute will be invited to participate if or when it is rescheduled.
“For any discussion that’s held, the organization should make an honest attempt to get all the information out, but especially at a public university with public funds,” Trabert said.
“There has to be an effort to include differing viewpoints – but more importantly, all the facts – about the issue at hand,” he said. “To just have school superintendents or Department of Education people involved is not a full discussion of facts.”
A public notice of the summit posted on the WSU website listed four panelists: Randy Watson, superintendent of McPherson schools and incoming Kansas Commissioner of Education; Craig Neuenswander, school finance team director at the Kansas Department of Education; Chad Higgins, superintendent of Moundridge schools; and Jim Freeman, chief financial officer for the Wichita district.
Snyder, the Hugo Wall School director, said several state lawmakers had been invited but declined. Organizers realized later that it was because the event was scheduled during the frenetic final weeks of the legislative session, she said.
“Our goal as always at the university is to provide avenues for public discussion of relevant public policy issues, to represent all perspectives and hear all voices,” Snyder said Tuesday.
KPI has been active in advocating for education reforms and supported the temporary move to block grant funding to give lawmakers time to craft a new funding formula.
Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, said he received the e-mail from Trabert about the WSU summit. He says he called Andy Schlapp, executive director of government relations for the university, to inquire about the summit and was satisfied with his explanation about why KPI wasn’t included.
“It wasn’t really to promote or to attack the school funding plan, but more just an overview of it,” O’Donnell said of the summit’s intent. “And that sufficed. I thought that was a legitimate answer, and I was happy with that answer.”
O’Donnell said he did not pressure WSU officials to cancel or postpone the summit, but that “I would assume that was part of the reason it was postponed.”
Schlapp said the postponement was unrelated to concerns expressed by KPI officials. Students and faculty members of the Hugo Wall School reconsidered the timing and decided to hold it when lawmakers could attend, he said.
“The recognition was, ‘Hey, if we’re going to have a public conversation we should probably have some senators there, have some representatives there. I think they would probably want to participate,’” he said.
O’Donnell said he was told invited panelists would include Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, one of the architects of the block grant plan, and Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
“I would certainly hope KPI would be supportive of those individuals … who were intensely involved in this,” O’Donnell said. “I personally believe that would be received better than having KPI there.”
Trabert said inviting conservative legislators to be part of the panel “would be an improvement,” but he still thinks his group should have a seat at the table for this or similar public forums on school funding.
“KPI has a tremendous depth of knowledge of school finance and school achievement, so I think it would be appropriate to have us participate in that,” he said. “In fact, I would have to question why Wichita State would not include an organization that has a different perspective than is represented by a majority of their panelists.”
Snyder said the event would be rescheduled for sometime after the legislative session, but she would not say whether KPI officials would be asked to serve on the panel.
“No decision’s been made,” she said.