Prairie Politics

Brownback’s office attacks ‘ever-litigating’ school districts

Gov. Sam Brownback’s communications office blasted “ever-litigating” school districts and attorneys in a message to supporters Tuesday evening.

Since Brownback won re-election in November, his communications office has been sending regular newsletters to supporters via grassroots e-mail Listserv, made up primarily of people who were on the campaign’s e-mail list.

In the most recent message, Melika Willoughby, Brownback’s deputy director of communications, criticizes the media and attorneys for Schools for Fair Funding, the group representing school districts suing the state for more education funding. She calls their criticism “flimsy” and “easily refuted.”

Willoughby focused on the contention of Schools for Fair Funding that increased payments to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System for teacher pensions don’t bring more dollars to the classroom. The administration counts those payments as school funding.

She singled out John Robb, an attorney for Schools for Fair Funding who has been vocal on the issue.

“While the state doesn’t designate funds specifically for teacher pay, it does contribute directly to bond packages, technology, and KPERS, freeing general operating funds to go toward teachers – the most important asset in any classroom,” Willoughby wrote. “Furthermore, and quite ironically, Mr. Robb himself is taking money out of Kansas classrooms to fund his war on taxpayers. He is robbing Peter to pay Robb.”

Willoughby’s writing could be interpreted to suggest that if the state didn’t make the pension payments, school districts would have to instead. However, the state has controlled the districts’ pension system since 1970.

Asked about this, Willoughby said the point she was making was that KPERS plays a key role in keeping the best teachers in the state, and so by funding the pensions, the state is “putting money in the most important asset in the classroom.”

Willoughby said that if the state didn’t put the money into the pension system, it could have gone toward schools’ general operations.

Robb said the state has a legal obligation to retirees to fund KPERS. He said that “as much as they would love to say they are increasing funding to the classroom, they are not.”

Eileen Hawley, who is Willoughby’s superior, said in an e-mail that if educators don’t think investments in the pension system are “helpful to providing a quality education for Kansas children, the Governor would welcome their thoughts about ways this funding could be redirected to get more money directly into the classroom.”

Asked the purpose of the newsletter, Hawley replied, “You have to correct inaccurate information.”

Robb pushed back against Willoughby’s characterization that his organization is “ever-litigating.”

“If this is so frivolous, as they claim, how come the state keeps losing?” Robb said. The court action currently pending is the state’s appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court after a three-judge panel found that school funding was unconstitutionally insufficient in June.

“They are 0-9 when it comes to the court actions in the last dozen years and yet somehow that’s my fault,” Robb said. “If a coach goes 0-9, he gets fired.”

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