Locals, legislators discuss education, funding issues





Education issues were some of the topics covered during the second Chamber of Commerce legislative coffee Saturday morning at St. Catherine Hospital.

State Sen. Larry Powell, state Rep. Russ Jennings, and state Rep. John Doll were on hand for about 90 minutes of discussion about things going on during this year's legislative session.

Rick Atha, USD 457 superintendent, asked where the legislators stood on two issues affecting the district: House Bill 2027, which concerns collective bargaining, and Senate Bill 103, which redefines how "at risk" students are determined, affecting the school finance formula.

Atha said the "at risk" bill would cost Garden City schools $3 million a year if it becomes law, which would be "devastating" for the district.

The bill would change the definition of "at risk" students. Currently, a student is counted as "at risk" if they are eligible for free meals under federal law. But under the bill, "at risk" would be redefined for students grade five and up to mean those who are on academic warning or don't meet math or reading standards on state assessments. Schools argue it would reduce the number of eligible students, thereby affecting the amount of per pupil funding received.

Powell said he doesn't think the bill got out of committee, but seemed to indicate he may not oppose it if it meant getting a deal for something else he considers important for this part of the state.

"We have to have friends up there. If we don't have friends, we don't get anything done," Powell said. "I've known people, all they do is read the paper and vote what their district wants. That's not the way I operate. I have friends and if I really need something, I think I have enough friends to get it," he said.

Doll said he opposes the "at risk" bill.

"I'm new. I haven't learned the game yet. If it's bad for Garden City, I'm voting no," Doll said to a round of applause.

Doll said there's no question sometimes you need to "horse trade" in the Legislature but when it's something that will cost the local school district $3 million, it's an easy decision to vote no.

Jennings, too, opposes the bill, noting it would have an overall impact of $5 million across the school districts within the 122nd district he represents. In some smaller school districts, he said, though the amount would be much less than the hit to Garden City, the percentage of their budget impacted would be greater.

"Those districts have already taken extraordinary steps to try to reduce the costs of their operations, including such things as a four-day school week. This would shift an excess of $10 million to the Johnson County school districts if it passed," Jennings said.

"At risk" funding, along with the oil and gas valuation depletion fund issue that southwest Kansas counties are concerned about, are two issues Jennings stands firm on resolving when the majority whip or others come ask him about other legislation.

"I will be Tim Huelskamp. I will say no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no," he said. "That's not necessarily where I'd prefer to be but those are two issues that would have significant impact on southwest Kansas and my district."

The collective bargaining bill, HB 2027, would take away the right of unions to negotiate on behalf of teachers, which Atha indicated would harm collective bargaining an negotiated items between teachers and the school board and administration.

Powell said he was unfamiliar with the bill since it is in the House. Both Doll and Jennings are opposed to it, though Jennings offered a caveat.

A separate bill Jennings supported in the House this year related to innovation in education and trying to look at new ways to approach education with the goal of making sure kids learn at a high level to be successful, self-sustaining, productive adults. Jennings would prefer seeing what results from the implementation of that law instead of trying to take the entire education system apart.

"I'd leave it (collective bargaining) alone for now. At the end of the day, this is about unions. This has nothing to do with education. This is about those who would prefer to see that there are no unions," he said.

One audience member asked for more information about the oil and gas trust fund issue.

The oil and gas valuation depletion trust fund was set up as a kind of insurance policy in case a county's valuation drops significantly, the county can dip into the set aside trust funds generated by oil and gas exploration to help keep its mill levy flat and avoid raising property taxes.

Some of the concern is that the Legislature will require counties to send trust fund money back to the state general fund. Senate Bill 206 would abolish the fund, but allow counties to keep the money they already put into the fund.

Powell said he wasn't familiar with the bill, even though he had made brief remarks about it in his opening statement, and sits on the ways and means committee which is working on the bill.

"This was in the Governor's budget to take the oil and gas depletion fund. I don't make the rules. I'm not a banker. I'm not on the banking committee, but I understand what you're saying. In the senate ways and means committee, we got half of it back in," Powell said after being brought up to speed.

In his initial remarks, Powell said the committee put back in the bill 8 percent that goes to the counties, "which will be $7.1 million in '14, and $9.2 million in '15."

Jennings said he "absolutely" will not vote for a budget or tax package until the depletion fund issue is resolved. He thinks the money counties have already received will be left alone and the flow of money into the fund will be reduced.

"Compared to zero, that's probably what we'll have to take in order to protect it," he said.

The next legislative coffee will be April 20.

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