Kansas schools panel weighs legislative proposals

Wichitan Sam Williams tried to keep the peace between two warring factions as a state commission on school spending reviewed tentative legislation and policy proposals it will submit to the Legislature next month.

Williams, who announced his campaign for mayor of Wichita earlier this month, drafted legislation with the help of the Revisor’s Office based on the commission’s previous hearings and input from members, but several of the proposals he put forward were alternately blasted as doing too much or too little by the school commission’s other members.

The K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission was created as part of the school finance bill the Legislature passed this spring to ensure that state dollars spent on education are used effectively in ways that benefit students.

Williams offered bills that would have set up additional commissions to study school districts’ unencumbered cash balances and potential cost savings from consolidating districts’ administrative functions, such as combining payroll systems.

Williams said he recommended additional studies partly to avoid panic and to allow school districts to be involved in crafting possible future reforms.

Former Sens. Janis Lee and John Vratil, who were appointed to the commission by Democratic leaders, voiced strong concerns about even studying these aspects of school funding.

Vratil, a moderate Republican, said that each school district needs to decide what works best for it and that superintendents had more expertise than lawmakers on this issue.

Lee said she didn’t see why the system needed to change. Williams pointed out that was the entire the purpose of the commission was to recommend changes.

But even stronger opposition came from former House Speaker Mike O’Neal and Dave Trabert, the president of the Kansas Policy Institute, both of whom were appointed by House Speaker Ray Merrick.

O’Neal, president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said there has been enough study commissions on education.

“Quit studying and do it,” he said.

Trabert did not attempt to hide his frustration. He engaged in several lengthy diatribes about how commissions end up being filled with people who resist policy changes.

“The danger in taking it off the table is we reinforce the notion that if we just spend more money, things will get better. And it won’t. It hasn’t. We need to step up and tell this Legislature they need to take some bold action,” Trabert said. “We all need to put on our big-boy pants here.

“We need to do this for the kids and not worry about what happens to the adults in the system,” he added.

Trabert, who was sitting next to Wichita East High School principal Ken Thiessen, one of the educators on the commission, said educators should not be on commissions regarding school finance because they are not necessarily efficiency experts and they become subject to pressure from the unions.

The commission did not move forward with Williams’ proposals to create additional study commissions, but Williams confirmed that the issues will be addressed in the final report submitted to the Legislature.

“Well, there’s strong-willed people in here,” Williams said after the contentious discussion. “One would expect there’s going be passion. And good. My job is to harness that passion.”

The commission will vote the first week of January on its recommendations to lawmakers. Ideas being considered include that lawmakers:

▪ Review unencumbered cash balances, unused money earmarked for specific purposes that some conservatives think school districts should sweep back into their general fund to fill other needs.

▪ Require school districts to conduct performance audits.

▪ Change state law about teacher contract negotiations to say that items other than salary, wages and work time are optional.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.