Prairie Politics

Brownback’s office criticizes media coverage of school funding decision


Gov. Sam Brownback’s communications office sent out e-mails to Kansans on Friday criticizing media outlets for coverage of his recent decision to trim school districts’ current year funding by about $28 million statewide.

The e-mail also repeats a popular Republican talking point blaming the Department of Education for underestimating the cost of last year’s school finance bill.

“As you may have heard, Governor Brownback announced additional budget reductions yesterday. Here is what the Kansas mainstream media won’t be reporting,” the e-mail begins. “The Legislature significantly increased spending on schools in the budget bill last year. Six months later, the Governor and Legislature were given a $63.6 million dollar bill above the budgeted increase as the Kansas Department of Education underestimated the fiscal note for the school finance bill passed last year. This is one example of why the school finance formula needs to be replaced.”

The e-mail from the governor’s deputy communications director, Melika Willoughby, sent on her government account, was forwarded to The Eagle by a reader who received it from a Republican friend who is a school board member in western Kansas and who was unsure of its purpose.

“There’s no call to action. We’re not asking people to do anything. It’s purely informational,” said Eileen Hawley, the governor’s communications director.

Hawley said the e-mail was not an attack on media outlets. “It is nothing more than an attempt to inform supporters,” she said.

She said the e-mail went out to a grassroots e-mail list that was fairly new. Anyone who does not want to receive the e-mails can unsubscribe, she added.

The e-mail provides a link to a clip from the Joseph Ashby Show, a conservative talk radio show in Wichita, defending the cuts and castigating the Department of Education.

“They passed a bill that they were promised spent that amount of money. And then when it turned out to be much more they were justifiably angry. They were like, who’s even the lawmaker at this point?” Ashby says in the clip. “In this case the law modifiers were the education bureaucracy.”

Lawmakers passed a bill using estimates about the cost of equalizing local option aid, which is based on local property tax values. Those estimates were based on the previous year’s property value assessments, and lawmakers were repeatedly informed that the cost could go up or down when the Department of Education got the year’s assessed property values in June.

When values rose, so did the cost of the bill. Had property values gone down – as they have in some recent years – the cost of the bill would have decreased.

“It bounces around all the time. That part isn’t new,” said Dale Dennis, the deputy commissioner of education who oversees school finance.

The e-mail pushes back on the notion that schools have received a cut.

“Even after the reduction (to the increase), school districts are still getting $177 million more this school year from state funds than last school year,” the e-mail states.

The e-mail does not mention that the bill to increase school funding was the result of a Supreme Court order resulting from a case filed in response to previous cuts.

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, accused the Brownback administration of trying to perpetrate a “sleight of hand,” noting that the governor has previously promised to safeguard education funding.

“It’s somewhat hypocritical for the governor’s folks to criticize the estimates not being accurate after hearing their estimates for how the tax plan would work for Kansas and then seeing the results,” Ward said.

“They make it sound like it’s some sort of conspiracy and the Department of Education cooked the books. That’s the frustrating part,” Ward said.

Ward also pointed out that last week the Brownback administration projected that a bill intended to address the state’s deficit would get the state through rest of the fiscal year. Those estimates turned out to be wrong.