School leaders lead during legislative session

There was a distinct difference in public education debates between the 2017 legislative session and several previous sessions.

That’s because many more of the state representatives and senators in 2017 knew from first-hand, K-12 experience exactly what they were talking about.

With school funding a key issue in the 2016 election cycle, approximately 50 education leaders from across Kansas ran for the Legislature.

And many of them won office, bringing to the Statehouse a high level of expertise of the complexities of financing and operating a system that serves a diverse population of more than 450,000 students and their families.

Often heard during debates, a legislator would start his or her remarks, saying, “As a school board member,” or “When I was superintendent … ‘’
These legislators/school leaders rolled up their sleeves, bringing decades of knowledge to the table to help craft a new school finance formula and the tax increase needed to fund it.

During one debate, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, voiced an often repeated allegation that school districts were sitting on piles of idle cash in their reserved funds.

But Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita, a freshman legislator who is also 16-year member of the Wichita USD 259 school board, explained in detail how reserve funds were needed for districts’ cash management.

For state Rep. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, this was her freshman year as a legislator after retiring from 14 years as superintendent of Auburn-Washburn USD 437.

She said current and former teachers, current and former school board members and several retired superintendents in the Legislature were influential during the session especially in the committee process where legislation is put together.

“This group of like-minded individuals, who care deeply about public education in Kansas, influenced the deliberations of the K-12 Education Budget Committee by being visible and present at committee meetings, advising the K-12 Education Budget Committee members individually, and providing practical information regarding implementation of the different components of the formula,” Dietrich said.

The K-12 Education Budget Committee took the lead in forming a new school finance method and also conducted in-depth hearings and discussions on other school issues, such as school district purchasing and health insurance. The presence of former superintendents, school board members and other education leaders on the committee produced a deeper understanding of those issues.

Dietrich said the pro-education forces in the Legislature tried to advance an agenda that would help all Kansas schools. There are at least 28 legislators who have worked in some capacity in the public education system and while they don’t vote as a bloc, their experience and knowledge provided crucial information to the school finance debate.

“Most importantly, we could be counted on to vote affirmatively for amendments to strengthen the structure of the formula while also thwarting some of the more destructive options presented for inclusion during legislative debate,” she said. “The pro-education philosophy in the Legislature, by the election of a group of folks with education backgrounds, was very beneficial for crafting a new school finance formula that is structurally sound and advantageous to most districts the first year and all districts the second year.”

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