Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Does Local Governance Need to be Fixed? (Repeat Post from February)

“A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll reported that nationwide, 64 percent of respondents wanted more local government influence on schools, while only 24 percent said there should be less.” 

For a student at the University of Kansas, being from Hutchinson was considered being from “western Kansas,” or as we referred to it “God’s country.”  I got closer to learning the truth about the westernmost meridians when I taught government and history at Bazine Jr.-Sr. High School.  But it wasn’t until I moved to Leoti as superintendent that I really knew how far west Kansas goes.  At the time, Leoti had the westernmost Kansas stoplight on highway 96. 

Teaching government and history, I thought I knew something about politics, but Leoti taught me the real meaning of Tip O’Neil’s famous statement that “all politics is local.”  Being superintendent one sees the pride of community and begins to really understand the Kansas value of local control.  I remember our Representative (a Democrat) and Senator (a Republican) talking to me about solving problems at the lowest level.  It made sense then, and it continues to stick with me. State interference isn’t needed in local matters. Local control is a Kansas value.

Kansas has a history of rugged individualism.  We stepped up and fought against slavery. We formed communities to help us be more efficacious in tough times.  Those communities grew strength from hard-times in the depression, the dust bowl, WWII, and the divisive 60’s.  Every community did this in their own way.  Every community set their own standards and solved problems in a unique manner.  The state helps with resources, but making decision has always been best when done at the local level.

Our system of local governance is being challenged now by some members of the state legislature.   These legislators want to add party politics to the local mix, move election dates, and change representative voting plans.  State politicians want to meddle in local government.

Local officials consistently trump state and federal representatives when it comes to the trust and confidence of the general population.  Surveys consistently say that the electorate supports their local officials, including those they send to Topeka and Washington, far more than the state's as a whole.

 A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll reported that nationwide, 64 percent of respondents wanted more local government influence on schools, while only 24 percent said there should be less. An Ohio study done by Fallon Research found that 65 percent of respondents said they had the most trust and confidence in their local school board, by far outpacing their governor, legislature, and state school superintendent combined.  

Local control is a Kansas value.  Unwarranted interference from the state level will create less focus on local issues and more on party positions and litmus tests.  Take a minute and contact your legislator to tell them how you feel about state-imposed changes on your local governance structure. 

Action Needed on Elections Bill

Why Change Kansas School Board Elections?

Over 200 locally elected boards of education in Kansas (more than 2/3) have passed resolutions against moving elections to the fall and making them partisan. These board members govern what Governor Brownback called the “5th best schools in the country” and spend less than any state ranked higher in student achievement. What are we trying to fix?

Last year the Kansas Legislature passed a law that required mail ballots in school district Local Option Budget elections. Kansas election officials estimate that mail ballots can increase voter participation by a factor of three (300 percent). No legislation to try mail ballots for local elections has been forwarded this year. Why aren’t we considering this fix?

Some party politicians in Topeka are pushing hard for moving school board elections from the spring of odd numbered years to the fall of even numbered years. According to the last KASB membership survey, nearly 70 percent of school board members self-identify as Republicans compared to 45 percent of the general electorate. What are we trying to change?

The Kansas Secretary of State has lobbied to move school board elections to the fall of even numbered years and to make them partisan to increase voter turnout. The Kansas Secretary of State has also argued that voter fatigue causes significant ballot drop-off and therefore Kansans need a straight party ballot. He testified that the drop-off from president to national senate and congressional votes is over 60,000 votes. What about voter fatigue?

Many Kansas elections are decided in the primary. In 2014, 50 Kansas House of Representatives candidates ran unopposed in the general election. Voter turnout in primary elections last year was about 20 percent. Thirty percent of Kansans are not affiliated with a party and are excluded from voting in primaries. Does focusing on primary elections increase turnout or exclude voters?

Please contact your legislator and ask these questions now! A bill is awaiting consideration right now. Act today! Call Your Representative and Senator!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Throwback Thursday- Here We Go Again

Brian Jordan was waiting for the copy machine at the KASB offices and noticed a framed copy of the first volume of the Kansas School Boards Journal sitting on a shelf.  Unlike the rest of us who walk by it countless times every day, Brian started to read Volume 1, Number 1, October 1930 of the KSBJ.  He suggested that I read it, and what a gem it is.

George Allen, Jr, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, extends his greetings and identifies the major issues of the time.  He starts by establishing the importance of Kansas Education for the entire state of Kansas and shares some data.  I was surprised at some of the numbers:

            Students                     500,000                     
            Teachers                      20,000                       
            Board Members          30,000                         

Who knew there were that many students, that few teachers, and wasn't simply amazed at the number of board members.  Those who think we have too many districts now would be shocked at the number we had 85 years ago for about the same number of students.  I was surprised at the number of teachers, until I considered that the curriculum was severely limited and there were no special programs for special needs students. 

Now that we know some numbers, what else was happening in 1930?  Superintendent Allen considered the preeminent issue to be funding equalization.  He asked that school board members “study (equalization) fearlessly without prejudice.…” He was concerned that wealth disparity in the state caused some districts to be able to educate their students for less than one mill a year, while others had mill levies of over 60 mills. 

He was also concerned about efficiency.  He explained, “…in some cases where attendance is very small, or where other unfair conditions may exist it may be possible to transport to other schools.”

Superintendent Allen worried about equitable revenue sources as well.  At the time there was no Kansas income tax and he advocated for an amendment to allow it.  Over-reliance on property tax was of great concern to the Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1930.  He worried that the country had changed since wealth was measured on how much property one owned and said, “80% of Kansas wealth is in intangibles,” not real property.  He gave several examples of people who paid no tax because they didn't own property, but had significant income.  He said these people considered it unfair and wanted to pay their “fair share” for using public services.

In response to the issues identified, the Superintendent offered a solution.  Citing a group called the Tax Code Commission, he explained a Proposed Act for Allocating New Revenue For Schools.  Today we might call this a school finance formula.  Mr. Allen recognized and explained the different challenges in different districts and the impossibility of a simple allocation, as did the Commission.  Their solution was complex and includes an equalization formula to share between districts, counties, and the state; a formula that controls for school size by allocating units of instruction based upon enrollment; assistance for districts with transporting students; and a mechanism to go above the base state funded instructional units.

Yogi Berra might say this is deja vu all over again. We should be careful about retreating to pre-1930 days with state revenue and school funding policies.  The comparison of numbers at the beginning shows how much more complex education is today than in 1930. We should heed the advice of the editors of the Journal who said:

“While most problems of teaching must be worked out by educators, the financial problems of the schools should be worked out by those who are intrusted with the business management of school affairs.  The school board members should be the best informed and their opinions should have the greatest weighting deciding any changes in the method of raising school revenue and in the distribution of that revenue.”

Yogi can say that again.