Lynn Rogers, a member of the Wichita school board, plans to challenge state Sen. Michael O’Donnell.
Rogers, who had been a longtime Republican, said the most recent legislative session – the longest in the state’s history – was a tipping point, prompting him to switch parties and challenge O’Donnell in Senate District 25 as a Democrat.
“People don’t wake up in the morning thinking of themselves as a Democrat or a Republican. They think of themselves as a Kansan,” said Rogers, a 56-year-old banking executive.
“I’ve been very ashamed sometimes with how Republican leadership has treated the average Kansan,” he said.
He said he will officially file for the race with the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office next week.
Rogers, a vice president at Farm Credit Leasing, has been a Wichita school board member since 2001. Before that, he was a member of the district’s facilities master plan steering committee, which helped plan and push the 2000 bond issue.
The school district that Rogers represents includes Riverside, Midtown and parts of north and northeast Wichita.
Senate District 25 includes parts of Riverside, northwest and south-central Wichita.
O’Donnell, 30, was elected to the Senate in 2012, unseating incumbent Jean Schodorf after a previous stint on the Wichita City Council.
In recent weeks, some Wichita residents have receive phone polls asking whether they would prefer O’Donnell or incumbent Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton, a Democrat who represents the county’s 2nd District, for commissioner.
O’Donnell said that he was aware of the polls but that he remains committed to running for re-election to the Senate.
Rogers speaks often about state funding for education and the need for local voters to elect education-friendly representatives. During recent budget discussions, he said a proposed mill levy increase for Wichita school district residents is the result of state lawmakers reneging on a promise to make school funding more equitable across the state.
In talking about his decision to run, Rogers highlighted his frustration with the Legislature’s passage of a bill that eliminated the state’s school finance formula and replaced it with block grants.
The bill and previous moves by Gov. Sam Brownback resulted in the Wichita school district receiving nearly $8 million less in state aid than it had expected to receive at the start of the school year.
O’Donnell was the only member of the Senate absent when the bill went up for a vote.
“Sen. O’Donnell did not fight that bill. I don’t believe he showed up to vote one way or another,” Rogers said. He said the board warned Wichita lawmakers against voting for the bill.
O’Donnell said he missed the vote because of a previously scheduled family vacation in Texas. “It was spring break with family. … My mom is a school teacher and only has certain vacation days, spring break being one of them,” he said.
He said he probably would have voted in favor of the block grant bill if he had been present, out of a desire to reform the school finance system.
Rogers said when the Legislature rewrites the school finance formula, he wants to ensure that funding is equitable across districts and that the needs of special-education students and English language learners are considered.
Rogers called O’Donnell “a rubber stamp for Sam Brownback.”
O’Donnell pushed back against this idea and said he is able to work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He cited his efforts with Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, to reduce the sales tax on food. That proposal was nearly included in the tax plan this past session.
“I think that you would be hard pressed to find any senator in Kansas that has more friends and works closer with Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature,” O’Donnell said.
Other education issues
O’Donnell attacked Rogers’ tenure on the school board, which he said included increases to property taxes. He said that he had voted to put more money into Kansas classrooms, referring to a 2014 bill that increased school aid in response to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling.
Rogers criticized the 2014 bill, which also eliminated a state requirement that public school teachers receive an administrative hearing before they can be fired. He said this and other bills – including one that passed the Senate that would have made it easier to prosecute teachers for obscenity – are making Kansas an unattractive place to teach.
“It’s very obvious that teachers are not respected by this administration or those that support this administration,” Rogers said.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, who joined Rogers at a campaign event in Wichita on Tuesday, said that Rogers’ “experience in public education is unequaled.”
“He will be the smartest voice in the Capitol regarding education issues,” said Carmichael, who was encouraged by some Democrats to run for the Senate seat himself.
Rogers was born in Fremont, Neb., and holds a business administration degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has lived in Wichita since 1985.
Rogers and his wife, Kristine, have been married for 31 years and are active members of the First Baptist Church. They have three adult children – whom he notes are all products of the Wichita school system.
Contributing: Suzanne Tobias of the Eagle