Tag Archives: Lynn Rogers

More parents unhappy with treatment by the Wichita school board

apple-chalkboard-booksKAKE Television reports on Wichita parents who are not happy with treatment by the school board, writing “Parents associated with Hyde tell KAKE News it’s not the decision that’s leaving a bad taste in their mouth. They’re unhappy with how the Wichita Board of Education treated them during the process.” Wichita Eagle reporting on this matter is at Wichita school board votes to transfer two teachers from Hyde Elementary.

A contributor to the newspaper’s Opinion Line wrote: “While I’m disappointed in the decision by the Wichita school board, I am simply stunned at the lack of respect Lynn Rogers afforded a fellow board member, Joy Eakins. His condescension toward her was palpable, and his remark to ‘roll your eyes if you like’ was both rude and unprofessional.”

This is not the first time citizens have suffered in this way. When a person like Lynn Rogers and most other school board members believe that they are totally responsible for — and the only reason why — any education takes place in Wichita, superciliousness and insularity are occupational hazards.

Another example is Wichita school board: critics not welcome, where I concluded “This is characteristic of this board and the entire district. They’re willing to accept citizen input when citizens agree with them. Otherwise, watch out.”

This board meeting public Betty ArnoldWhen she was president of the board of USD 259 Betty Arnold let citizens know the real purpose of board meetings, and how citizens should behave. At a meeting, citizens had criticized the board for large and important issues, but also for such mundane things as the amount of the superintendent’s monthly car allowance. Arnold admonished citizens for speaking about things like this in public. It’s not respectful, she said.

Finally, after directing a uniformed security guard to station himself near a citizen speaker, Arnold told the audience: “If we need to clear the room, we will clear the room. This board meeting is being held in public, but it is not for the public, or of the public. And I hope you understand that.”

Video of Arnold is below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Reaction to Kansas school lawsuit decision

Following are several reactions to the decision in Gannon vs. Kansas, the school funding lawsuit. The court ruled the state must spend more on schools.

An important observation on the true size of the court-ordered tax increase was offered by Kansas Policy Institute:

“Today’s mandate of a $654 Base State Aid Per-Pupil (BSAPP) increase forces the state to raise annual spending and taxes by $440 million and, because of the way the Local Option Budget is written, local property taxes will automatically increase by $154 million. In total, the Shawnee District Court would take an additional $594 million out of the Kansas economy every year.”

See KPI on Gannon: Extremely Unfortunate $600 Million Annual Tax Hike more, including:

“It is extremely unfortunate for citizens of Kansas that the court has effectively ordered an annual $594 million tax hike. This is even more shocking given that there is no evidence that the billions in increased spending have raised student achievement on independent national exams. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), less than half of Kansas’ 4th and 8th grade students are proficient in math and only about one third are proficient in reading – this is essentially unchanged over the past decade despite billions in increased taxpayer support.

“It costs a lot of money to operate our schools, but its how the money is spent that matters, not simply how much. Just this week, Education Week gave Kansas a D+ for student achievement; among other things, this was a result of low rankings for achievement gains and that we are below the national average for gains in each subject and grade level. They also pointed out that per-pupil spending in Kansas is above the national average and that State expenditures on K-12 schooling, as a percent of state taxable resources, are the 12th highest in the nation.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback issued this statement:

“The ruling by the district court is disappointing but not unexpected given the Kansas Supreme Court’s previous ruling in the Montoy case in 2005. Through today’s ruling, the courts are drastically increasing the property tax burden on every Kansan. The Kansas Legislature, not the courts, has the power of the purse and has, in fact, increased total state funding for schools every year during my administration. The legislative process is the appropriate venue for debating and resolving issues of taxation and spending.”

From Senate President Susan Wagle:

“Once again, Kansas judges have overstepped their constitutional bounds and defied the will of Kansas voters and their elected representatives and senators. With today’s decision, this judicial panel ignored the system of checks and balances that every Kansas student is taught in school and decided that they alone, not the people via the legislature, would determine how the people’s money should be spent, by imposing a specific dollar amount that Kansas must spend for education.

“These judges have made themselves the sole arbiters of spending — and by extension, taxation — in Kansas. They have demonstrated no regard for the ability of struggling Kansas families to pay higher taxes, if necessary, to meet their demands. This also disregards the will of Kansas voters, who overwhelmingly elected a House and Senate that supports the existing school funding policy — one that maintains educational quality while also being sensitive to the very real difficulties being faced by Kansas taxpayers.

“I am committed to upholding the will of the majority of Kansans who want their elected leaders to maintain high-quality public education. I am committed to restoring to Kansas the fundamental American principle that only the elected representatives of the people of Kansas — accountable to them at the ballot box — may enact laws regarding spending and taxation.”

In a press release titled “District Court decision supports a quality education” Kansas National Education Association (KNEA), our state’s teachers union said:

Once again a Kansas Court has found that the Legislature has failed to fully fund an appropriate public education for Kansas students. …

As to the issue of property taxes, this decision has no effect on property taxes whatsoever. Whether or not property taxes increase will be a matter of how the Legislature decides to react. Since the Legislature last year chose to enact massive cuts to the state income tax, they will need to look to some tax source to overcome first the shortfall of nearly $300 million created by the tax cut and then the projected $440 million necessary to fund the school finance formula. If property taxes go up, the decision will rest entirely with the Legislature. There are many options available to them; they have so far chosen to use scare tactics in reaction to being held accountable.

There is no greater economic development tool than a well-trained, well-educated citizenry. Kansas has long delivered on that promise. This ruling reasserts the State’s commitment to the children, families, and businesses of Kansas.

USD 259, the Wichita public school district:

The District Court of Kansas issued its opinion on the school finance lawsuit on January 11. The ruling, which is in excess of 250 pages, requires adequate funding for schools. The court ordered that the base state aid per pupil should be funded at $4,492, up from $3,838. If funded, the base increase would restore most of the cuts the district has made since 2009. The increase could be at least $45 million. To read the ruling, click here. To watch BOE President Lynn Rogers’ news conference about the opinion, click here.

“This is a win for Kansas students,” said BOE President Lynn Rogers. “The lawsuit is about our children and the Kansas of tomorrow, so we can prepare Wichita students for the high-wage, high skill jobs of the future.”

BOE President Rogers said that the lawsuit was about adequate funding for all Kansas students and that they deserve a quality education regardless of where they live in the state. He also said it is about creating a highly-skilled workforce for the future, which starts with students receiving a quality education.”

“The education we provide is the foundation for our workforce and the future of Kansas. If we don’t give our students a quality education now, we will pay for it in the future,” he added.

The school districts involved in the lawsuit represent about one-third of the students across the state.

President Lynn Rogers said that school districts must collaborate with the Kansas State Legislature to work towards school funding solutions.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

Responses to records requests made by Kansas Policy Institute are bringing attention to shortcomings in the Kansas Open Records Act.

Those who have made records requests in Kansas are probably not surprised that KPI has had difficulty in having its records requests respected and filled. In 2007 Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas a letter grade of “F” for its open records law. Last year State Integrity Investigation looked at the states, and Kansas did not rank well there, either. See Kansas rates low in access to records.

This week KPI president Dave Trabert appeared before the Sedgwick County Commission to express his concerns regarding the failure of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to fulfill a records request made under the provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act. Video is at Open government in Sedgwick County Kansas.

While commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau spoke in favor of government transparency and compliance with records requests, not all their colleagues agreed.

Dave Unruh asked Trabert if GWEDC had responded to his records request. Trabert said yes, and the response from GWEDC is that the agency believes it has complied with the open records law. This, he explained, is a common response from agencies.

Commission Chair Tim Norton expressed concern that any non-profit the commission gives money to would have to hire legal help, which he termed an unintended consequence. He made a motion to receive and file Trabert’s remarks, which is routine. His motion also included taking this matter under advisement, which is what politicians do in order to bury something. Unruh seconded the motion.

Peterjohn made a substitute motion that a representative from GWEDC would appear before the commission and discuss the open records act. This motion passed four to one, with Unruh in the minority. Even though Norton voted in favor of Peterjohn’s motion, it’s evident that he isn’t in favor of more government transparency. Unruh’s vote against government transparency was explicit.

Wichita school district records request

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, also declined to fulfill a records request submitted by KPI. In a press release, KPI details the overly-legalistic interpretation of the KORA statute that the Wichita school district uses to claim that the records are exempt from disclosure.

In a news report on KSN Television, school board president Lynn Rogers explained the district’s reason for denying the records request: “But some school board members with USD 259 in Wichita say, the numbers brought up in court are preliminary numbers. That’s the reason they are not handing them over to KPI. ‘We have worked very hard over the years to be very forthright and we’ve tried to disclose the information when we have it,’ says Lynn Rogers.'”

This claim by Rogers — if sincere — is a break from the past. In 2008 Rogers told me that it is a burden when citizens make requests for records.

Until recently the Wichita school district had placed its monthly checkbook register on its website each month, and then removed it after a month had passed. Rogers explained that the district didn’t have space on its servers to hold these documents. That explanation is total nonsense, as the pdf check register documents are a very small fraction of the size of video files that the district hosted on its servers. Video files, by the way, not related to instruction, but holding coverage of groundbreaking ceremonies.

City of Wichita

KPI has made records requests to other local governmental agencies. Some have refused to comply on the basis that they are not public agencies as defined in Kansas statutes. This was the case when I made records requests to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In 2009 I addressed the Wichita City Council and asked that the city direct that WDDC follow the law and fulfill my records requests. (Video is at Video: City of Wichita and the Kansas Open Records Act.)

In my remarks, I told Mayor Carl Brewer and the council this:

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

But in my recent experience, our city’s legal staff has decided to act contrary to this policy. It’s not only the spirit of this law that the city is violating, but also the letter of the law as well.

Recently I requested some records from the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Although the WDDC cooperated and gave me the records I requested, the city denies that the WDDC is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

This is an important issue to resolve.

In the future, requests may be made for records for which the WDDC may not be willing to cooperate. In this case, citizens will have to rely on compliance with the law, not voluntary cooperation. Or, other people may make records requests and may not be as willing as I have been to pursue the matter. Additionally, citizens may want to attend WDDC’s meetings under the provisions of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Furthermore, there are other organizations similarly situated. These include the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. These organizations should properly be ruled public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act so that citizens and journalists may freely request their records and attend their meetings.

Here’s why the WDDC is a public agency subject to the Open Records Act. KSA 45-217 (f)(1) states: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The Kansas Attorney General’s office offers additional guidance: “A public agency is the state or any political or taxing subdivision, or any office, officer, or agency thereof, or any other entity, receiving or expending and supported in whole or part by public funds. It is some office or agency that is connected with state or local government.

The WDDC is wholly supported by a special property tax district. Plain and simple. That is the entire source of their funding, except for some private fundraising done this year.

The city cites an exception under which organizations are not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.”

The purpose of this exception is so that every vendor that sells goods and services to government agencies is not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act. For example, if a city buys an automobile, the dealer is not subject simply because it sold a car to the city.

But this statute contains an important qualifier: the word “solely.” In this case, the relationship between the City of Wichita and the WDDC is not that of solely customer and vendor. Instead, the city created a special tax district that is the source of substantially all WDDC’s revenue, and the existence of the district must be renewed by the city soon. The WDDC performs a governmental function that some cities decide to keep in-house. The WDDC has only one “customer,” to my knowledge, that being the City of Wichita.

Furthermore, the revenue that the WDDC receives each year is dependent on the property tax collected in the special taxing district.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that in terms of both funding and function, the WDDC is effectively a branch of Wichita city government.

The refusal of the city’s legal department to acknowledge these facts and concede that the WDDC is a public agency stands reason on its head. It’s also contrary to the expressly stated public policy of the state of Kansas. It’s an intolerable situation that cannot be allowed to exist.

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, it doesn’t take a liberal application of the Kansas Open Records Act to correct this situation. All that is required is to read the law and follow it. That’s what I’m asking this body to do: ask the city legal department to comply with the clear language and intent of the Kansas Open Records Act.

The following year when WDDC’s contract was before the council for renewal, I asked that the city, as part of the contract, agree that WDDC is a public agency as defined in Kansas law. (Video is at Kansas Open Records Act at Wichita City Council.) Then-council member Paul Gray, after noting that he had heard all council members speak in favor of government transparency, said that even if WDDC is not a public agency under the law, why can’t it still proceed and fulfill records requests? This is an important point. The Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions that agencies use to avoid releasing records. But agencies may release the records if they want.

Any council member could have made the motion that I asked for. But no one, including Gray, former council member Sue Schlapp, former member Jim Skelton (now on the Sedgwick County Commission), Mayor Carl Brewer, and council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) would make a motion to increase government transparency and citizens’ right to know. Wichita city manager Robert Layton offered no recommendation to the council.

Last year I appeared again before the council to ask that Go Wichita agree that it is a public agency as defined in the open records act. Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Discussion on this matter revealed a serious lack of knowledge by some council members regarding the Kansas Open Records Act. In remarks from the bench James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].” Such a workshop would probably be presented by Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf. His attitude towards the open records law is that of hostility, and is not on the side of citizens.

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I made no requests that year to the city citing the open records act. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to Meitzner’s concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Brown and I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas to discuss this matter. Video is at In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency.

Enforcement of Kansas Open Records Act

In Kansas, when citizens believe that agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Act, they have three options. One is to ask the Kansas Attorney General for help. But the policy of the Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local District Attorney, which is what I did. The other way to proceed is for a citizen to pursue legal action at their own expense.

After 14 months, Sedgwick County DA Nola Foulston’s office decided in favor of the governmental agencies. See Sedgwick County DA Response to KORA Request to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

When newspapers have their records requests refused, they usually give publicity to this. The Wichita Eagle is aware of my difficulties with records requests in Wichita, as their reporters have attended a number of meetings where my records requests were discussed, sometimes at length. But so far no coverage of an issue that, were the newspaper in my shoes, would undoubtedly covered on the front page. Something tells me that KPI won’t get any coverage, either.

Additional information on this topic is at:

Wichita school district discusses unspent fund balances

Last week the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district provided another example of the attitude of the board towards those who have opinions that are not aligned with the policies of the district and public school spending advocates.

In this example it was Dave Trabert who appeared to speak to the board. Trabert is president of Kansas Policy Institute. His purpose was to present to the board some options the district has, based on a new state law, for managing its finances so that it could proceed without laying off teachers or eliminating programs.

Board president Connie Dietz made sure the speakers were aware there is a three minute time limit — now there is a timer on the display screens — and that the speakers would be excused after that time.

Trabert told the board that based on new state law, the Wichita school district has $16.4 million available for it to use without restriction. These are funds that the district has in accounts, but did not spend in previous years. “The district can, if it chooses, use this option to avoid teacher layoffs and other program cuts,” Trabert said.

Trabert recognized that the district needs some balances to help manage cash flow. He also mentioned the fact that school districts and school spending supporters don’t address: “The fact that these balances have increased significantly over the years, as some revenues were not spent, shows that the district has the ability to use this option if it chooses, and still have a lot of cash left over.”

He also told the board that many school districts in Kansas are able to operate with lower ratios of cash balances, relative to their operating expenses, than the Wichita district does.

Board member Lynn Rogers questioned Trabert, asking him how he felt about the federal government spending Social Security trust funds on things other than Social Security benefits. Trabert asked how that applied to the issue at hand.

Rogers said the district’s fund balances are a similar concept, and that if the district spends fund balances on something other than originally intended, it’s like the government misapplying Social Security trust funds. But the two concepts are distinguishable.

The idea behind the Social Security Trust Fund is that payroll taxes are collected from workers, and are then invested to earn interest over a long period of time in order to pay future benefits to retirees.

The district’s funds, with the possible exception of a fund like capital improvement or textbooks, are not intended as long-term investment vehicles. Rather, they are designed to meet short-term needs and to manage cash flow.

Despite the huge difference in the nature of the school funds and the Social Security Trust Fund, Rogers pressed Trabert to answer his question, trying to draw a comparison between the district’s health care fund and Social Security. But again, the comparison is not valid. The district’s self-insurance health care fund is for the anticipated costs of health care for the current year. It is not a long-term savings plan, as Social Security is intended to be.

We saw recently how the Wichita school district treated someone who made a proposal that lied outside the school spending orthodoxy. Here again we see similar treatment: First, the speaker is sternly reminded of the short time limit. This is, remember, at school board meetings where vast expanses of time are wasted on “feel-good” measures that do nothing to advance public policy, or education, for that matter.

After the speaker finishes, board members may then lecture the speaker, often in an attempt to divert attention away from the issues the speaker raised. At least in this meeting the board member gave the speaker a chance to respond. That may not happen again, as Rogers made nonsensical arguments in his attempt to back the speaker into a corner and avoid addressing the substance of the issue at hand.

The issue of the fund balances, while important, is not the most serious issue facing Wichita and Kansas schools. Most people would be surprised — and shocked — to learn that only 26 percent of Kansas students that take the ACT test are ready for college-level coursework in all four areas that ACT considers. (See Most Kansas students not ready for college.) While this result was slightly better than the national average, it means that three-fourths of Kansas high school graduates need to take one or more remedial college courses.

It is important that citizens understand the issue of the unspent fund balances. It’s also important that they are aware of the refusal of school districts and school spending advocates to deal forthrightly with the public on this issue. It provides insight into the nature of our public schools, and why reform is so difficult.

The written material that Trabert presented to the board may be found at Unencumbered Carryover Cash Balance Facts (According to the Kansas Dept. of Education, school district budget documents, Kansas Legislative Research Department and basic accounting principles). For more articles on the fund balances, click on Kansas school fund balances.

Wichita school fund balances again an issue

The issue of school fund balances in Wichita and Kansas is a serious issue that deserves discussion. At the same time, we need to make sure we don’t lose sight of Kansas school issues that are even more important. But school officials need to be held accountable for their deception of the public, most notably through straw man arguments.

When Dr. Walt Chappell, an elected member of the Kansas State Board of Education, used a slot on the public agenda to address the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, his shabby treatment by the board was one issue. But the more important issue is the substance of Chappell’s remarks, and the reaction by school district officials.

Chappell asked the board to use money socked away in various fund balances to balance the budget. In his written remarks, he wrote: “The Wichita school board does not need to lay off teachers, raise property taxes or cut instructional programs to balance next year’s budget.”

The Wichita school district, like many across the state, has unused balances in a variety of funds. Some of these funds, by law, must be used only for certain purposes. But this year the Kansas Legislature passed a law that gives school districts greater flexibility in using these fund balances.

Even through the unused fund balances have been restricted to certain uses, school districts have always been able to “spend” them by simply not transferring so much to the funds. But there’s been an incentive to make transfers to these funds, as once the money is in certain funds, school districts can hoard it.

In his response to Chappell, and also in a recent letter to the Wichita Eagle, board member Lynn Rogers tried to explain why these fund balances are not the solution that Chappell and others say they are. His primary argument is that fund balances are needed for cash management purposes. An example: “Special education is a clear example of why having a fund balance is good business practice. We ended the past fiscal year with $12.5 million in the special education fund. Special education salaries are about $12.1 million between July 1 and the next state aid payment received in October.”

Everyone can understand that. The need for fund balances to manage cashflow is legitimate and not part of the argument of those who advocate using fund balances for other purposes. For Rogers to use this as part of his argument is an example of a straw man argument. In using this fallacy, Rogers replaces his opponent’s argument with a “superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition.” Then he refutes it. The appearance, if you’re not watching carefully, is that Rogers has refuted the original argument. But he hasn’t.

What Rogers and other school spending advocates don’t talk about is the rise in the fund balances over years. In a letter to the Wichita Eagle George Pearson wrote that Rogers provided “accurate but incomplete information” on the school fund balances. Pearson explained: “USD 259 had $45 million in those funds at the beginning of this fiscal year. Five years ago, those balances were $31 million. The buildup in those balances comes from state and local tax dollars received in prior years that haven’t been spent. SB 111 authorizes USD 259 to use about $16 million in any manner the district chooses — ironically, about the same amount it collected but didn’t spend over the past five years.”

This is what the arguments of Rogers and the school spending lobby don’t explain: Why do the fund balances rise year after year, and rise faster than the overall level of school spending? The only explanation is that money is added to the funds faster than it is spent, year after year. Schools have not spent all the money we’ve sent them — despite their constant poor-mouthing.

This issue, while important, is not the most serious issue facing Wichita and Kansas schools. For example, most people would be surprised — and shocked — to learn that only 26 percent of Kansas students that take the ACT test are ready for college-level coursework in all four areas that ACT considers. (See Most Kansas students not ready for college.) While this result was slightly better than the national average, it means that three-fourths of Kansas high school graduates need to take one or more remedial college courses.

It is important that citizens understand the issue of the unspent fund balances. It’s also important that they are aware of the refusal of school districts and school spending advocates to deal forthrightly with the public on this issue. It provides insight into the nature of our public schools, and why reform is so difficult.

For more articles on the fund balances, click on Kansas school fund balances. Chappell’s written remarks are below (use the toolbar to zoom or for a full-screen view), and video of his appearance before the Wichita school board follows that.

Wichita, Kansas (USD 259) School Budget Recommendations

Wichita school board: critics not welcome

A recent meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, provided insight as to the insularity of the board members and district staff, and as to how little meaningful discussion or debate takes place at board meetings.

At the June 20th meeting, Dr. Walt Chappell, an elected member of the Kansas State Board of Education, used a slot on the public agenda to address the board about the upcoming budget. Chappell received a chilly reception — to say the least — from board president Connie Dietz. Chappell has been outspoken in his criticism of the way the state spends money on schools. Chappell knows, as do other critics of the Kansas school education bureaucracy, that if you’re not a team player, you’re going to suffer abuse from the education bureaucracy and its supporters.

Regardless of the validity of Chappell’s remarks to the board — more on that in another article — the attitude of Dietz is worse than simply being rude. It is shutting up your critics simply because you control the gavel. It is boorish and bullying behavior. It is contrary to good government.

The balance of power at meetings like these is all in favor of the board. Citizens, even elected officials like Chappell, may speak for a short period of time. Then board members may speak at length without fear of being held accountable for their remarks, because if the citizen were to speak even one word out of turn, the board would shut them up.

This is at a school district where much board meeting time is devoted to “feel good” measures such as the lengthy goodbye to departing board member Kevass Harding at the same meeting. That had nothing to do with public policy. It was constructive in no way except to board members, district staff, and Harding’s ego. By the way, he used the opportunity and time to announce his future political ambitions.

But when citizens and officials like Chappell speak — even though they may speak about important and weighty matters of policy — their time is strictly regulated. If they disagree with school district orthodoxy they may be scolded and lectured with no chance to defend themselves or rebut false statements and nonsensical arguments from board members or district staff. There is nothing resembling discussion or debate except among board members and district staff — all who drink from the same ideological fountain.

It’s not the first time this has happened to Chappell at the Wichita school board. Two years ago a similar incident took place. In my coverage, I wrote: “Certainly these three board members were dismissive of Chappell and his input. This is characteristic of this board and the entire district. They’re willing to accept citizen input when citizens agree with them. Otherwise, watch out.”

The district, however, believes there is debate. In a recent letter to the Wichita Eagle, board member Lynn Rogers claimed that budget decisions “are being debated heavily.”

The debate, however, is not inclusive or fruitful. Few citizens are even remotely aware of the level of school spending, whether spending is going up or down, and whether spending is related to student achievement. Last year the Kansas Policy Institute commissioned a public opinion survey that revealed just how uninformed and misinformed the citizens of Kansas are on school spending matters. National surveys have produced similar findings.

Instead, the debates about policies and budgets take place largely among those who benefit from school spending and increases. And, of course, in the one-sided lectures from the school board bench. Rogers called Chappell’s facts “misleading” despite the fact that the supporting documentation comes from the district itself and the state department of education.

This is not the first time that members like Rogers have revealed just how out of touch they are with the concerns of citizens and how misinformed they can be. For example, he told me during a meeting that responding to requests for information is a burden that prevents the district from educating kids.

In another instance, Rogers said “I know there are kids from many Catholic schools that have come to public schools when the Catholic schools have kicked them out.” It turns out that the Wichita Catholic schools expel very few students, less than five per year on average.

Diversity? It’s a sought-after goal of the district. In fact, the district has a committee with the title “Diversity, Equity and Accountability Committee.” But diversity in thought and opinion must not be part of what’s desired. The belligerent and disrespectful behavior of board members, particularly president Connie Dietz, is a deterrent to parents, teachers, students, and citizens who want to be involved and have their voices heard. That is, unless they agree with and praise the board and district.

Without the involvement of everyone, the board and district make decisions without all relevant facts and input, and often with incorrect information about many vitally important matters. That, I believe, is they way they like it.

Wichita school district makes transparency effort

Recently USD 259, the Wichita public school district, placed five month’s of checkbook register data on its website. This is a good move, and we should thank the district for doing this.

But we need to remember that the Wichita school district is very late in making this transparency effort, and the district’s past attitudes towards citizens needs to be remembered.

In the past, the district has made this checkbook information available each month. It was made available as a pdf document, which is not nearly as useful as an Excel spreadsheet, which is the format of the most recent months.

Furthermore, the pdf documents would be on the district’s website for less than a week. Board member Lynn Rogers explained that the district didn’t have space on its servers to hold these documents. That explanation is total nonsense, as the pdf documents are a mere fraction of the size of video files that the district hosted on its servers.

That type of misinformation is what citizens have come to expect from Rogers and the rest of the district. Not only misinformation, but hostility towards citizens and their records requests. Rogers has told citizens that records requests are a “burden” on the Wichita school district and interfere with its ability to educate children.

Other frustrations with getting information from the Wichita district and its interim superintendent Martin Libhart led me to conclude, as the title of an article: Wichita School District: Accountability is on Our Terms.

So while citizens should thank the Wichita school district for its recent actions, we’ll have to wait a while to see if the prevailing attitude of hostility towards citizens and their requests for information disappears.

Kansas school spending lobby impossible to satisfy

A new report by the Kansas Policy Institute provides some insight into the voracious appetite of the Kansas school spending lobby for taxpayer dollars: There’s never enough.

In A Kansas Primer on Education Funding, Volume III: Analysis of K-12 Spending in Kansas this story is told:

So the rumors of school funding wars persist, with legislators and taxpayers asking “how much is enough?” and schools pressing for more money with no real end in sight. Speaker Pro Tem Arlen Siegfreid (R-Olathe) shared with me a conversation he had with Mark Tallman, Assistant Executive Director/Advocacy for the Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB), which illuminates the dynamics at play:

Early last session Mark Tallman and I engaged in a conversation about the budget and school spending. During the conversation the difficulty of increasing school spending as ‘required’ by Montoy was juxtaposed against the need to cut school spending by the same percentage as other portions of the State budget. During our discussion I asked Mr. Tallman if we (the State) had the ability to give the schools everything he asked for would he still ask for even more money for schools. His answer was, “Of course, that’s my job.”

We’ve known for some time that the appetite for money by the school spending lobby can’t be satisfied. In 2007, when the Wichita school board voted to raise taxes I wrote this:

Lynn Rogers, then the USD 259 (the Wichita public school district) school board president, and Connie Dietz, then vice-president of the same body, attended. There had been a proposal to spend an additional $415 million over the next three years on schools. Asked if this would be enough to meet their needs, the Wichita school board members replied, “No.”

At least Rogers was not lying. Much more Kansas state spending than that was approved, and true to his word, the Wichita Board of Education still found it necessary this week to raise taxes so the public schools could have even more money.

On Wichita school board, are only supporters’ opinions welcome?

At this week’s meeting of the Wichita school district board, member Lynn Rogers criticized the Wichita Eagle for printing a story that include criticism by an opponent from the 2008 bond issue campaign without disclosing his involvement in that campaign.

At issue is a land sale. Rogers said: “It also bothered me that the person who was identified that did have the courage to give their name — which I admire — it’s somebody that they didn’t identify as someone that was not in favor of the bond issue in the 2008 campaign and actually spoke often against it and against what 259 was doing.”

Is Rogers’ criticism relevant? Should only those who blindly support everything the Wichita school district does have a voice? I don’t think so.

But if we’re talking about transparency and disclosure, let’s put it all out in the open.

Has the Wichita school district disclosed that the school district’s partner in this land transaction contributed to the bond issue campaign? Michael Monteferrante and his wife contributed $500 to that campaign.

I haven’t seen this reported, and I don’t think the Wichita school board disclosed this either.

Wichita school expulsions: the numbers

Recently a comment was left on this blog claiming that children in the Catholic school system who are problems are kicked out and end up in the public school systems. The writer didn’t make any claim as to the magnitude of the number of students, but readers are led to conclude that it’s enough to be a problem for the public schools.

Last year Wichita school board president Lynn Rogers made a similar claim, stating “I know there are kids from many Catholic schools that have come to public schools when the Catholic schools have kicked them out.”

So what’s the true story? Last year I took a look at the numbers in Wichita school expulsion myths.

Kansas open records examined

Here’s another outstanding investigative report by Paul Soutar of the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy. I have experienced some of the same obstacles that Soutar has encountered. Last year Wichita school district board member Lynn Rogers told me that record requests are a burden. Interim superintendent Martin Libhart’s attitude was similarly hostile towards legitimate citizen requests for records. Indications are that new board president Barb Fuller and new superintendent John Allison have a better attitude towards records requests, and I hope that time proves this to be the case.

The spirit is willing but the law is weak

Paul Soutar, Flint Hills Center for Public Policy

Government transparency in Kansas is determined largely by open records and open meetings laws which state lofty goals but offer many loopholes and exemptions and few penalties for violations of the laws.

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) starts off well. “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

Similarly the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) begins, “In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that meetings for the conduct of governmental affairs and the transaction of governmental business be open to the public.”

The legislation that follows these broad and lofty goals, however, is full of exemptions and loopholes that circumvent the stated intent. Ignorance of the law and poor compliance by various government bodies also limit its effectiveness according to government transparency advocates.

A 2008 Better Government Association (BGA) report ranked Kansas’ open records law 18th in the nation. A 2007 study by BGA and the National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas an F and ranked the state 25th out of 50. A 2002 study by BGA and Investigative Reporters and Editors gave Kansas a D.

Citizens who believe KORA or KOMA law has been violated can file a complaint with the local county attorney, district court or the state’s attorney general. Michael Smith, a Kansas assistant attorney general responsible for issues relating to KORA and KOMA, says complaints about KORA and KOMA compliance are handled locally out of practicality. He says with more than 4,000 government units in Kansas his office would be stretched way too thin.

Smith stressed the importance of government transparency and awareness of the law during KORA/KOMA training held in Dodge, Olathe, Topeka and Wichita in June. A total of 332 people attended the training. According to registration data received from Smith’s office, 255 were affiliated with government, 46 were with the media and only 14 said they were unaffiliated citizens; another 17 did not list any affiliation.

From January 2007 to June 2008 there were 62 complaints filed at the county level according to reports submitted to the state attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office received 78 complaints during that time, including some referred from the county.

In most cases no violation was found. Some violations were resolved by delivery of the requested material. In a few cases the offending government employee or elected official was required to attend KORA or KOMA training. None of the violations covered by documents obtained from the attorney general’s office resulted in the $500 fine that is permitted by state law.

There are some common issues leading to problems with KORA. Chief among them is ignorance of the law.

The law allows an agency to require a written request but not on a specific form and only as a way to ensure good communication. The requester can only be required to provide their name and a description of the information being requested and provide proof of identification. It is not permitted to ask for the person’s employer or a reason for the request. Governments can require written certification that the requester will not use names and addresses obtained to solicit sales or services but only when someone is requesting names or addresses.

Many times government employees or elected officials are unfamiliar with the law and their first reaction is to look for reasons to deny access or information. It can be complicated because there are 48 exemptions to KORA in the statute and more than 300 elsewhere in other Kansas laws according to Smith. Most exemptions deal with personal privacy issues and release of some personal information can result in a lawsuit against the government.

During KORA/KOMA training Smith said record custodians must be familiar with records and know which portions of a record cannot be released. “If you’re a record custodian you better know if any of those records are closed.”

Another common complaint is excessive charges for providing information. KORA allows agencies to charge requesters only for the actual cost of making copies, including staff time to gather, redact and copy the records.

Smith says the only place the law addresses fee disputes is with state agencies. In those cases the department of administration has final and binding say. There’s nothing like that for local government, so disputes over fees at the local level must go to the local county or district attorney.

Taxpayer Frustrations

Paul Driver, CEO of ATG Sports in Andover, filed an open records request with the Wichita School District seeking information regarding an April 2009 synthetic turf contract awarded to a Texas company for $371,000 more than ATG’s bid. According to Driver the district said it would cost him $800 to fulfill his request. Driver offered to bring his own copier to cut costs. “At that point, the school district said we would need to bring our own power source to make the copies.” Eventually a deal was reached for Kansas Blue Print to make the copies for $350.

The Flint Hills Center for Public Policy requested a copy of a budget report presented to the Wichita Board of Education for their fiscal year ended June 30, 2009. Flint Hills was informed that there would be a $50 charge for 2.5 hours of staff time to make an electronic copy of the report and that the money would have to be paid before work commenced.

Upon delivery of the check, the report was burned to a CD in less than 15 minutes. Allowing $5 for the cost of the CD the employee’s time was effectively charged at $180 per hour. When asked to explain what work was actually done to warrant the charges the employee said he would not answer without a written request for review, which Flint Hills has filed.

Material provided to Wichita Board of Education members at their public meetings is available on the district’s web site a few days preceding the meeting and is taken down the day of the meeting. Former board president Lynn Rogers said the short availability may be because of space considerations on district Internet servers. The district web site does contain marketing newsletters from 2006.

When asked about the incidents involving Flint Hills and ATG Sports, Wichita School Superintendent John Allison said after less than one month in the job he was unfamiliar with the specific incidents or the district’s policy and how procedure is determined. “My intent would be to meet the requirements of the open records law and do that on a timely and equitable manner for everybody that requests.”

Kansas State Board of Education member Walt Chappell used KORA to try to extract information from the Kansas State Department of Education about claimed achievement test improvement as a justification for more taxpayer money. Chappell also asked for information to explain a large discrepancy between state and national student achievement test scores.

Chappell made the request to Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Alexa Posny in a letter dated June 9. He asked for, “any KSDE research report or independent contractor research report provided to the KSDE which supports your claims.”

Chappell says responses to his request from KSDE and its lawyers did not provide what he was looking for and believes their response may indicate that no such report exists. KORA does stipulate that only existing documents are covered and agencies are not required to generate reports, explain or answer questions.

It’s also noteworthy that an elected member of the state’s school board had to resort to an open records request to get answers from KSDE, part of the education system he was elected to help oversee.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Gwen Welshimer says government should be open and everything possible made accessible at little cost to the public. But she’s concerned that the law doesn’t apply equally to all levels of government. “I think local government elected officers and appointees are treated in a different manner from some state officials.”

Of particular concern is recent legislation prohibiting serial meetings. A serial meeting covers “… a series of interactive communications of less than a majority of a governing body that collectively involve a majority of the body and share a common topic concerning affairs of the body and are intended to reach an agreement.” Meetings in person, over the Internet, phone or via e-mail are included.

Welshimer said some open meetings requirements, such as a prohibition on serial meetings, have a disproportionate effect on local government and has the opposite effect of what the law was intended to do. “Tight regulations on county commissioners make it extremely difficult to carry out policy and reach decisions.” She says most of that work is done behind closed doors by county managers who work up an issue and create the agenda before giving commission members a short briefing preceding the vote.

“We can’t talk to each other so we can’t discuss anything. So I don’t know what the reasoning is for my colleague to vote one way or another,” Welshimer said in a recent phone interview. “Sometimes that’s a totally new subject and we haven’t been able to talk to each other to see what each other knows about it.”

When asked about opportunities to ask questions in open meetings Welshimer said commissioners, like most elected officials, are reluctant to appear uninformed in public.

State legislators can order research from the Legislative Research Department. That research is not open to the public unless released by the legislator.

Welshimer, a former state representative, wants to know why state legislators aren’t held to the same standards as local elected officials. “The legislature has serial meetings constantly. They go along and count votes.” She says this allows legislators to research a topic, write a proposal, gather sufficient support for passage and spring it on the legislature. She says city and county managers have similar opportunities. “Every group in town can talk with the county or city manager about some item and then the manager can spring it on the commission. So where in this process do we have openness?”

Welshimer says anything the legislature does should apply to them and believes the state’s open meeting law should be rewritten.

Wichita school informational forums could help increase understanding

At Monday’s meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, board president Lynn Rogers said he wants to have a discussion about ending balances, in particular unencumbered funds. He said there is misunderstanding in the community, during the bond issue campaign last year, and now with a state school board member. He added that he wants to communicate the meaning of this to the public.

Rogers didn’t mention the state school board member by name, but I think I can guess who he’s referring to. You can view the member’s less-than-cordial treatment at a recent Wichita school board meeting in this YouTube video.

There’s a problem at the Wichita school board meetings, as there also is at meetings of many other government bodies. Citizens — even a Kansas State School Board Member — have to speak first, and briefly at that. Then the board members, superintendent, and staff get to speak without fear that the citizen will be able to ask questions, rebut arguments, or just call plain old nonsense for what it is.

A group in Wichita is considering a public forum to discuss this issue. Hopefully this event will take place, and representatives from the school district will participate.

The alternative is more meetings where one side only is in control of the agenda, the message, and the flow of information.

Wichita school district turf vendor selection process unlawful, board members told

At last night’s meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, citizens learned that the process used to select the vendor for artificial athletic fields was flawed and violated Kansas law. The district will start over, almost from the beginning, and use a competitive bidding process to select the firm to install the fields at five high schools. The result is that the fields will not be available for the coming football season.

Interim Superintendent Martin Libhart announced that a hearing committee had been working all day, and that its recommendation was to reject and revoke the award of bid to Hellas Construction, and the the project should be put out for competitive bid.

During time for citizen comment, speakers mentioned that the board promised that the bond money would stay local and the hope that taxes would be spent wisely.

The president of Hellas Construction spoke and thought that the bid process was very thorough. He believes that the proposal process had been commingled with a competitive bid process, and that leads to the question as to whether anyone but the second-low bidder has standing to challenge the process.

Board member Kevass Harding asked whether the process — 400 hours of time plus travel expenses — was wrong? Board counsel Tom Powell said the process was thorough. The question, he said, was whether the Kansas bid law applied in this situation. The decision of the committee was that we couldn’t come to a conclusion as to what had been done complied with the bid law.

Board member Connie Dietz asked why this process must be a competitive bid rather than a request for proposal. After a follow-up question, Powell said that this process should have been a competitive bid.

Dietz asked what happens to the timeline, if we support the committee? The district had wanted to have the field in place for the fall, but now that goal is not achievable.

She also asked what happens if the board stands by its previous decision? Powell answered “we’ll go to court.”

After an executive session of about 30 minutes and a few additional questions, board member Barb Fuller moved that the bid be revoked and the turf fields be put out for competitive bid.

Board member Lanora Nolan warned against “buying the cheap.” She said her greatest frustration is when “adult” issues get in the way of what’s best for kids. She also noted that none of the citizens who spoke to the board on this matter mentioned what’s best for kids. That’s heartbreaking, she said, to talk about taxpayer money and not what’s best for kids.

The motion passed unanimously.

After the meeting, citizen John Todd said “How is it that you [USD 259] can break the law — violating a state statute — and anyone that advocates for the taxpayer get criticized because they’re against children.”

It is now apparent that the process of acquiring these turf fields was flawed from the start. Somehow, the district started an expensive selection process that is contrary to what is now apparent the law requires, according to Powell’s interpretation. 400 hours of time plus travel expenses (my request for these expense records is being fulfilled) is now largely wasted, although some of the experience gained will be used in writing the specifications for the bid process.

Also, a season will go by without new artificial athletic fields.

If the board wants to assess blame, it should investigate who it was that authorized this expensive and flawed process. In particular, was the process approved by the district’s legal counsel, either internal or external?

Certainly the district has legal staff at its disposal. Last year during the bond issue campaign the district’s lawyers had time enough to threaten to sue a citizen group because the apple they used was similar to the apple the district uses in its logo.

If the district has the legal resources to harass citizen groups about the use of a generic apple logo, why can’t they get these big things right?

The Wichita school district talks about accountability. Here’s a chance to show that they actually mean it. Investigate and find who is responsible for this.

Coverage from the Wichita Eagle is at Wichita district nixes turf builder’s contract.

Wichita election results equal status quo, worse

The result of yesterday’s elections in Wichita is an endorsement for the status quo. For those interested in liberty, free markets, and education in Wichita, the election was a total disaster.

On the Wichita city council, the two incumbents running for re-election won. For the open seat, Janet Miller won. While her website talks of fiscal responsibility, it’s a safe bet that Miller is on the side of increasing the size, scope, and intrusiveness of city government.

The election of Miller doesn’t signal a huge shift on the council, as Sharon Fearey, her predecessor, favored an expansionary city government.

For the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, all four incumbents won. This is terrible news for Wichita schoolchildren and taxpayers. As outlined in my post Wichita school board members should not be re-elected, the Wichita school district is moving exactly in the wrong direction on many issues.

The board members have a bad attitude, too. Walt Chappell, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education, recently experienced the overbearing arrogance of this board. My post Wichita school board video shows why members should not be re-elected holds the video that exposes these attitudes.

But as reported in the Wichita Eagle, board members are pleased. Connie Dietz actually said “This wasn’t time for new people to be on the board.”

When people like Dietz believe that they — and only they — have the ability to successfully run the Wichita schools, we’re in a lot of trouble. Wichita schoolchildren now face great danger, as any possibility of meaningful reform in the Wichita school district is becoming less likely.

Dr. Chappell asks the Wichita school board to NOT sell bonds

After seeing the way several members of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, treated Kansas State Board of Education member Walt Chappell at last Monday’s meeting, I contacted him. I was curious as to what his rebuttal would be to the scolding he received from board members Connie Dietz and Betty Arnold. Board president Lynn Rogers was gentler, but no less contemptuous. See the post Wichita school board video shows why members should not be re-elected for more coverage of this, including video.

You can read the agenda for this meeting by clicking on Board of Education Agenda for March 30, 2009. Also click on Board of Education Minutes for March 30, 2009 (Unapproved).

Here’s Chappell’s response in its entirety.

The decisions which must be made by all elected officials, businesses and families during this economic crisis are how to pay for top priority needs with less income. My main concern with the USD 259 School Board’s unanimous decision to spend over $1 million dollars on the Consent Agenda without any discussion at the March 30th meeting is that capital outlay funds are first needed to build classrooms and buy equipment to teach our students employable skills. Only 1% of the State and Local education is spent on vocational education.

Instead, the USD 259 Board approved $265,000 dollars to pave two parking lots at Cessna and Stanley Elementary which have only a few small holes which could be easily patched in two hours instead of pouring concrete over the whole area. They approved buying two small parcels of land for $192,000, bought a gym divider for $45,100 at Gammon elementary school and approved $553,985 to redo about 40% of the roof at Truesdell Middle School rather than fix a few leaks.

The Agenda item I was addressing that night had to do with the broader issue of whether the USD 259 School Board should start selling bonds to pay for the massive new $370 million dollar construction projects. In the November, 2008 election, voters in only 9 Kansas school districts approved $800 million in new school bonds which impacts the whole State budget.

The major problem for the Legislature is that each time a few districts pay principle and interest on their bonds, it is a demand transfer out of the Kansas General Fund budget. This means less money available for all State programs. USD 259 is demanding that the Legislature hold back $92.5 million dollars plus interest in revenue to cover the 25% State portion of these bonds. It is like a person building a fence on their property and then demanding that all of the neighbors on the block share the cost.

Building new general education classrooms and sports complexes during this economic crisis is the wrong decision. The money which the State Legislature is forced to pay for these bonds is needed to pay our teachers and teach employable skills to our students. We should not “Rob Peter to Pay Paul”.

For example, in USD 259, over $5 million needs to be cut from next year’s budget because the State revenues are over $1 billion short for fiscal year 2010, which starts on July 1, 2009. In addition, the Kansas Career Pipeline which matches students with resources to train them to earn a living is being canceled. Driver’s Education, the Kansas School for the Deaf and the Kansas School for the Blind are other programs which may be cut to balance the State budget. Because there is not enough tax revenue coming in and K-12 school districts refuse to make significant cost reductions in the 51% of the State funds they already receive, the Legislature has cut Higher Education in Kansas by $63 million dollars, closed prisons and rehab programs, and stopped other vital programs throughout our State.

The irony of the dismissive and angry comments from several USD 259 Board members after I spoke briefly in the three minute public comment agenda is that I fully understand the relationship between selling bonds to build sports complexes, pave parking lots and classrooms we can do without and the cuts forced on the rest of Kansas by their determination to sell these bonds in spite of the massive downturn in our economy. I studied school finance during my doctoral program at Michigan State University. I have served as an elected K-12 school board member and as Budget coordinator on that board know about capital outlay spending restrictions. I have also been the Budget and Planning Director for a six-state federal education project which included 125 schools plus wrote an Amicus brief in the Kansas Montoy school finance law suit. This information has been on my website at www.chappell4ksboe.com for nearly a year.

The fact is that selling school bonds in the foreseeable future is a grave mistake. It is taking money out of the State General Fund which is needed to pay our teachers, teach our kids employable skills, keep the tuition from rising even further at our universities and colleges, keep our communities safe and provide vital services to thousands of Kansans. The contractors and architects in Wichita who paid over $185,000 to buy TV ads plus thousands of yard signs and buttons saying 25% State money want our tax dollars to go into their pockets. This is pure greed — not educational necessity.

I ask that the USD 259 Board hold off selling any school bonds for new construction until our State budget has money to pay for these low priority wants. It is essential that decision makers at all levels tighten our belts and make sure that vital services and programs are funded first. The emphasis for capital outlay funds which districts already have, needs to be on remodeling and equipping special classrooms to teach our kids employable skills — not swimming pools, tennis courts, football fields or paving parking lots.

Respectfully submitted,
Walt Chappell, Ph.D.

Wichita school board video shows why members should not be re-elected

On Monday March 30, 2009, Walt Chappell, who was recently elected to the Kansas State Board of Education and whose district overlaps some of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, spoke before that district’s board. The hostile reaction by board members, which you may view on video that I captured, is remarkable for the insight it gives us into the board and its members. Wichitans should have no confidence in the governing ability of this board, whether they have children in Wichita schools or not.

Chappell has a lot of experience and understanding of education issues in Kansas. His hostile reception by the board members is all the more surprising given his role as a member of the Kansas State Board of Education.

I’ve talked to several citizens about the behavior of board members, especially Connie Dietz and Betty Arnold, and to a lesser extent Lynn Rogers.

“Offensive” and “unprofessional” were common reactions. “Dripping with inappropriate indignation” was one I thought was particularly perceptive.

Especially with regard to Dietz, people said it was though she was scolding a child instead of speaking to a member of the Kansas State Board of Education.

Certainly these three board members were dismissive of Chappell and his input. This is characteristic of this board and the entire district. They’re willing to accept citizen input when citizens agree with them. Otherwise, watch out.

When an elected official — especially one with some ability to shape policy that the Wichita board must follow — is treated this way, what treatment should regular citizens expect if they appear before this board in opposition?

I’ve had a dose of this myself a few times before this board. Last year Arnold tried to bargain for my support of the bond issue by proposing to give me the information I as a citizen had requested. As reported in the Wichita Eagle:

“So if you had the correct information,” board member Betty Arnold asked Weeks, “then would you support the bond issue?”

“If I had correct information, then I could make a decision,” Weeks answered.

Evidently it’s outside the ability of Arnold — and the other board members, for that matter — to understand that anyone could be against the bond issue for any reason.

Unfortunately, Arnold has no opponent in tomorrow’s election. Dietz and Rogers do. For the behavior shown here — and for many other reasons (click on Wichita school board members should not be re-elected) — Wichitans should vote against these members.

Wichita school board members should not be re-elected

Next Tuesday, four members of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, seek to be elected again to their current posts.

These members — Lanora Nolan, Lynn Rogers, Connie Dietz and Betty Arnold — are part of a board and school district that is increasingly out-of-step with education reforms that are working in other parts of the country. Their policies and actions are harmful to both Wichita schoolchildren and Wichita taxpayers.

At the time when most of the country is starting to realize that quality teachers, not the number of teachers, is what makes the biggest difference in student outcomes, the Wichita school district is going the wrong way. The bond issue, with its focus on reducing class size, will force the district to hire more teachers. This makes it more likely that schoolchildren in Wichita will be taught by poorly-performing teachers.

Its contract with its teachers union forbids any type of merit pay that might induce the best teachers to stay in teaching. Instead, all teachers are paid the same. Only length of service and extra education credentials allow teachers to earn more. Now researchers have found that length of service and the credentials earned at university schools of education make very little difference in student outcomes.

Across the country parents can take advantage of school choices programs such as charter schools, vouchers, and tax credits. These programs give parents — instead of school administrators and politicians — choice as to where to send their children to school. In some cases, they allow parents to decide how their own tax dollars should be spent. The Wichita school district, including its board and the incumbent candidates that stand for election next week, are firmly against these type of programs that have benefited many students and parents. They prefer a government monopoly.

The Wichita school district and its board are miles behind other school districts and governmental agencies regarding transparency and openness. Its recent search for a new superintendent was conducted in such a secretive manner that even the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman — one of the district’s several apologists at that newspaper — was critical.

The district and board’s attitude towards citizens is nothing less than hostile. In particular, board member, now board president, Lynn Rogers has told citizens that records requests are a burden to the district. When citizens ask for evidence of claims the district makes, Rogers advises them to use Google to look things up for themselves.

The board gets even little things wrong. For example, the board’s agenda that’s posted on the USD 259 website holds appendixes, which are usually attached files that hold additional information such as a Powerpoint presentation. But these files are removed quickly after the meeting. Most governmental agencies leave them available for eternity.

Three board members, in their joint campaign materials, state they are proud of 11 years of rising test scores. Across the country school districts and states have watered-down testing standards in response to political pressure to produce rising test scores. Is this the case in Wichita and Kansas? We don’t know. But as scores rise on tests administered by the state, they remain unchanged on the national tests that are immune from local political pressures.

The fact that all of the candidates facing election challenges have advertised jointly is evidence of another severe problem on the Wichita board of education: Rarely is there controversy or evidence of independent thought by board members. Consider the bond issue from last year, which passed narrowly (51 percent to 49 percent) when voted on by the public. Board members were unanimous in their support of the bond issue. What are the odds of that? (Well, board member Jeff Davis initially dissented, but only because he thought his district didn’t get its fair share. His straying from the board’s groupthink mentality was short-lived, however, as at the next meeting he changed his vote.)

Then there’s the bond issue from last year. One analysis found that 72% of the contributions, both in-kind and cash, came from contractors, architects, engineering firms and others who directly stand to benefit from the new construction. The board rewarded Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture for its efforts in passing the bond issue with a no-bid $3.7 million contract to manage the bond issue.

As large as the bond issue is, to board members it’s not enough. Board members started with a list of projects that totaled some $550 million. These projects are on the back burner, and as soon as this board senses the time is right, it will propose another bond issue. Count on it.

We should remember the board’s conduct during the election. Calling a special election to be held in May, the board delayed it when it appeared the political landscape was not in their favor — after their opponents had mobilized and spent resources. The board appeared to rely on a hapless citizen group during the summer months for recommendations. Despite the district’s denials, huge amounts of district resources, all provided by taxpayers, were used to promote the bond issue.

This Wichita school district and its board is an institution firmly rooted in and preferring a big-government style of education monopoly. It ignores evidence of reforms that work, preferring to remain beholden to special interests such as the teachers union, education bureaucrats, and firms that benefit from school construction. None of its members deserve re-election.

Wichita school board of education campaign contributions

Recent campaign finance reports filed by candidates for the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, show some contributions that may be of interest to Wichita voters.

I’ve compiled a table of some of the contributions. This table is not comprehensive. It includes only the three incumbent candidates that have challengers: Lanora Nolan, Lynn Rogers, and Connie Dietz.

Joe Johnson, head of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, the firm that the Wichita school district selected without any competitive bidding to manage the implementation of the bond issue and the largest contributor to the bond issue campaign from last year, says “thank you” to several candidates. But it’s rather tepid, to say the least, as he could have contributed $500. And what didn’t Lanora Nolan do to earn the gratitude of Johnson? She received just $149, with the other two incumbent candidates receiving $250 each.

Unions contributed. United Teachers of Wichita, the Wichita teachers union, contributed the same amount to all three incumbents. That union will be negotiating its contract with the board sometime soon.

Unions involved in construction trades — Plumbers and Pipefitters Union and Wichita-Hutchinson Labor Federation — contributed the maximum amount to some of the incumbent candidates. It’s not clear as to their motive: thank you for passing the big bond issue? Of the three incumbent candidates, it’s Lynn Rogers that seems to be most appreciated by the trade unions. Lanora Nolan received no contributions from these unions.

Rogers also received $300 from Kansas Families for Education PAC, a group from Johnson County that advocates — incessantly, and without regard to facts — for more funding for public schools.

Lanora Nolan and her husband made a large contribution to her campaign. It also received $500 contributions from companies her husband is associated with.
Wichita school board campaign contributions 2009

Should Wichita Identify Superintendent Finalists?

When USD 259, the Wichita public school district, draws criticism from the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman, you know they’ve really done something wrong.

Her column of today (Identify finalists for superintendent) requests that the Wichita school district make public the names of the finalists in its search for superintendent. Her request is likely to remain unfulfilled: “And board president Lynn Rogers was less than reassuring Wednesday when asked whether the public would have an opportunity to learn the names of more candidates than just the winner.”

What we’d really like to know if Martin Libhart, the present superintendent — interim, that is — applied for this job. Whether he did, and whether his application was considered seriously by this board, will tell us a lot about both parties.

Changing Rules Now Bad, Says Wichita School Board President Lynn Rogers

“It amounts to changing the rules in the middle of the game,” said Wichita school board president Lynn Rogers. “And it’s really bad policy.”

This is the Wichita Eagle reporting his remarks to the possibility that the State of Kansas might stop the aid to school districts that helps them pay for bond issues. Mr. Rogers may object because it means that USD 259, the Wichita public school district, may lose a great deal of money. It also means that the district may not be able to fulfill one of its campaign promises, that being that the state would pay for 25% of the cost of the bonds.

It’s ironic that Rogers objects to “changing the rules in the middle of the game.” I wonder if he remembers that the Wichita school district originally scheduled the bond issue election for May 6, 2008.

Then, perhaps sensing that the mood of the electorate was not in his favor, he voted — along with all other school board members — to delay the election to some future date. This was after one of the opposition groups had already spent a considerable sum on a mailing, and after both opposition groups had spent much time and effort. Evidently the time and money of opposition groups means nothing to Mr. Rogers. Unless, of course, it’s the time and effort spent earning income so that they can pay taxes to the Wichita school district.

So now we’ve learned something about Mr. Rogers and other school district officials. When they control the rules, changing them for their own advantage is good. But when others control the rules, Rogers wants them to adhere to a standard that he himself is not willing to follow.

Raising Wichitans’ Taxes in a Recession is Not A Good Idea

“Democrat Barack Obama says he would delay rescinding President Bush’s tax cuts on wealthy Americans if he becomes the next president and the economy is in a recession, suggesting such an increase would further hurt the economy.” (Associated Press, September 7, 2008)

Contrary to assertions by Wichita school interim superintendent Martin Libhart and school board president Lynn Rogers, Wichita can’t tax and spend its way out of a recession that may or may not be forthcoming. Not even Barack Obama believes that, as shown in the news story quoted above.

Still, bond issue supporters say that’s what happened after the last school bond issue. There’s even a Wichita State University study to prove it.

(There’s no doubt that some individuals and firms did well after the last bond issue. No doubt Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, one of the firms most prominently pushing for the current bond issue, fared very well.)

But what they don’t tell you is that the WSU study doesn’t account for the payment of the bond issue. All it looks at is the spending. Spending, of course, drives economic activity. If government spends money, economic activity happens. But without mentioning the cost, the study is meaningless.

In fact, it’s worse than meaningless. It’s dangerously misleading. It leads citizens to believe that government spending can save us from harm. If that’s true, why don’t we go for a bigger bond issue? Why stop at $370 million? Why not go for the full $550 million in needs that was identified?

Wichita School District’s Claims Must be Questioned

At a Wichita school bond issue debate on October 14, 2008, I challenged USD 259, the Wichita school district, to give evidence of their claim that smaller class sizes lead to better student achievement. That’s because I’ve been waiting a week for both USD 259 and the “Yes for Kids” group to respond to my request for references to the research they presumably relied on when formulating these claims.

The next day, while speaking to the Wichita Downtown Lions Club, Wichita school board president Lynn Rogers said “If you just put in the words ‘class size reduction’ to Google, you’ll get 609,000 entries. There’s plenty of research.”

I think it says a lot about the credibility of the arguments advanced by the Wichita school district when the district’s communications office and the citizens group that supports the bond issue can’t quickly produce references to evidence that supports their claims. It seems likely that the school district has no such evidence. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they produce it when citizens ask for it? Why wouldn’t they provide links to it on their informational websites?

Has no one asked the district for such evidence? Hasn’t a single news reporter bothered to fact check some of the district’s claims?

Back to Mr. Rogers and the Google search. I wonder if he actually read any of the articles that appear in the results of this search.

For example, the fourth article that appeared when I performed the Google search recommended by Mr. Rogers is from the Heartland Institute. It’s titled “Class-Size Reduction Brings Mixed Results” and starts with this passage:

Two recent studies of student achievement for students enrolled in class-size reduction programs in Wisconsin and California offer mixed results and call into question the cost effectiveness of large-scale programs with mandatory class-size caps.

The seventh article is from Education Week, and it’s titled “Class-Size Reductions Seen of Limited Help on Achievement Gap.”

Some of the search results do support smaller class sizes. One result was from the National Education Association, the teachers union. That union, as you might expect, supports anything that makes teachers’ jobs easier, no matter how much it costs and without consideration to whether it does students any good.

This is not the only evidence the school district has had difficulty producing. A request for evidence of how arts and athletics improve student achievement took from September 29 to October 8 to fulfill. Shouldn’t this be easy to produce, given that the district uses it as an argument for the need for the bond issue?

Until the Wichita school district and its supporting campaign groups — or the Wichita Eagle Editorial Board, for that matter — can produce references to the evidence they rely on when making their claims, Wichitans should rightly be skeptical of their claims. Saying “it’s all about the kids” doesn’t cut it.

Wichita School District: Accountability is on Our Terms

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, wants to be held accountable. They say so. It’s a theme of the proposed bond issue, as recently stated by celebrity spokesman George Fahnestock: “…the district’s accountability is strong…” (See CARE launches Yes For Kids campaign)

But what happens when citizens seek information from USD 259 that will let them verify claims made by the district?

One of the things I and others have been looking at is the number of classrooms in the district’s schools. We made a records request asking for this number, and we were told this information would cost us $860. (See Wichita School District Values Its Information Highly)

I wondered if the district actually knows how many classrooms it has. Interim superintendent Martin Libhart told me at a May 12 school board meeting “We do know how many classrooms we have, I can assure you of that.” Follow-up correspondence with Mr. Libhart revealed that the count of classrooms is a slightly more complicated issue than it might appear at first. Still, no count is available. So Wichitans are left with this message from USD 259: We can’t tell you how many classrooms we have, but we’re sure we need many more.

Even simple requests post a problem. Asking for the definition of a “violent act” in the context of statistics for USD 259 that I collected from the Kansas State Department of Education requires weeks of waiting and follow up messages. Finally, a request to be placed on the agenda of a board meeting produced the answer I was looking for.

On top of this, citizens who request information like this from USD 259 are made to feel guilty. That’s right. Lynn Rogers, now Wichita school board president, says these records requests interfere with the board’s mission of educating children. (Wichita Public Schools: Open Records Requests Are a Burden)

I recently made a request for records from USD 259. It was rejected. This week I revised the request and narrowed its scope. We’ll have to see how this request is handled.

Recently, a top investigative journalist told me that with the declining resources of local newspapers, many government agencies routinely deny records requests or slow-walk them, as agencies know that newspapers don’t have the resources to vigorously pursue requests.

USD 259 consumes huge resources. Its budget is larger than either the City of Wichita or Sedgwick County, and it grows rapidly. It now asks for Wichitans to support even more spending in the form of the proposed bond issue. But when asked for information that Wichitans can use, the district’s answer is clear: accountability is on our terms.

Wichita School Bond Presentation by Helen Cochran

On September 15, 2008, Helen Cochran of Citizens for Better Education gave a talk before a Wichita civic group. Her talk was fabulous. Here are some highlights:

Helen (like myself) has tried to get test scores from USD 259 (Wichita public school district), but it’s a difficult process. There’s always a delay or reason why figures aren’t available. But, as Helen noted in her talk, school board president Lynn Rogers and Wichita Eagle columnist Mark McCormick seem to have access to the data. Openness and transparency, as I noted in posts like Wichita Public Schools: Open Records Requests Are a Burden isn’t a competency at USD 259.

Helen mentioned what USD 259 doesn’t: new facilities will incur increased maintenance costs. It’s really worse than that, as new facilities need to be heated, cooled, and lighted. New classrooms, built to support class size reduction, need new teachers and perhaps more staff and bureaucracy.

Here’s something important in Helen’s talk:

The defeat of this school bond could be a beneficial springboard to realizing that business as usual is not succeeding in preparing our kids for the future and we must look to the numerous failures and successes in other communities if we are truly committed to giving our children the necessary tools to compete in a global economy.

Vouchers, school choice, charter schools, home schools are not dirty words. The Wichita Eagle editorial board recently dismissed a group of bond opponents as “you people just want vouchers” as if that was all the more reason not to take opponents seriously in their concerns. These alternatives strike fear into the hearts of educational bureaucrats and teacher unions. Well you know what? It is not about them. It is about the children.

Why is the existing education establishment and the Wichita Eagle editorial board afraid of school choice in Kansas? Their standard response is that school choice programs drain money from public schools. But this fear is unfounded. Recently the The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice released the study School Choice by the Numbers: The Fiscal Effect of School Choice Programs, 1990-2006. Their finding? “Every existing school choice program is at least fiscally neutral, and most produce a substantial savings.”

It’s possible — perhaps likely — that members of the public education establishment like Wichita school board president Lynn Rogers and the other board members don’t know this. Perhaps Wichita Eagle columnists like Mark McCormick and Rhonda Holman dismiss school choice without knowing facts like this. If so, here’s a chance to become informed.

Near the closing of her talk, Helen said this:

This proposed bond, like many bonds across this country, is a referendum on an administrative bureaucracy that equates progress to shiny and new. And however well intended, we have a school board that follows, rather than leads. The mantra would appear to be go along to get along.

Mark McCormick’s Wichita School Bond Bias

Writing from Scottsdale, Arizona

Today’s Mark McCormick column in the Wichita Eagle (Opponents of school bond skip specifics) provides an example of this columnist’s bias, and how this bias leads to his rapidly losing credibility among Wichitans.

Bias is okay for a columnist. Everyone is entitled to a point of view. After reading a few of McCormick’s columns you get used to his way of looking at the world. Then you can either read his column, filtering it as you do. Or, like many people tell me, they’ve simply stopped reading his column. Sometimes they stop the entire newspaper.

Here’s one of the problems with this column: In allowing Wichita school board president Lynn Rogers a “big-league rebuttal,” McCormick wrote “The board members, who aren’t paid for this work, are responsible for answering the most pressing challenges.”

This makes it sound like the bond issue has been planned and managed only by volunteers.

This ignores, however, the huge staff at USD 259, many highly paid to advance the interests of the public school bureaucracy and monopoly, many now working on educational campaigns for the bond issue.

This ignores the tremendous effort by Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture in promoting the bond issue. They are working for free, but this firm stands to earn millions in fees if the bond issue passes. As shown in the posts Wichita School Bond Issue Economic Fallacy and Wichita School Safe Rooms: At No Cost? this firm’s head, Joe Johnson, often says things that make me wonder in amazement.

This ignores the efforts of many construction companies and contractors that have, at least according to their sponsorship of an event, lined up behind the bond issue, hoping to profit from the building of public works — whether they’re needed or not.

The bond issue opponents are the true volunteers, if that makes any difference. As outsiders, we don’t have access to the type of information that Lynn Rogers and USD 259 insiders have. And, as I’ve illustrated, getting information from this district is problematic.

NAACP Hosts Wichita School Bond Issue Mini-debate

I was invited by Kevin Myles, president of the Wichita Branch of the NAACP, to participate in a community mini-debate series about the proposed Wichita school bond issue. Lynn Rogers, president of the Wichita school board, also participated.

You can read the questions and answers in the post What YOU need to know about the Proposed School Bond Issue.

Thank you to Mr. Myles and the local NAACP branch for this public service.

Wichita School District Dodges TIF District Issue

At the August 25, 2008 meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, John Todd and I addressed the board members, asking that they exercise their veto power over the formation of a tax increment financing (TIF) district recently created by the City of Wichita. My remarks may be read in the post Wichita School District: Don’t Give Up Your Tax and Revenue Base.

At issue is the Wichita school district giving up its claim to tax revenue from possible future development surrounding the downtown Wichita arena. As is usually the case with TIF districts, confusion reigns. That works to the benefit of politicians, bureaucrats, and political entrepreneurs (those are the taxpayer-subsidized downtown developers), but against the interests of citizens.

At its core, the arithmetic of property taxation is simple. There’s the assessed value of all the property within the boundaries of USD 259. Then there’s a mill levy, or tax rate. Multiply the two, and that’s how much tax revenue the district is entitled to receive. (Collecting that is a different matter. According to USD 259’s comprehensive annual financial report, the district does quite well, usually collecting over 97% of the tax it imposes.)

But there are some restrictions imposed by the state of Kansas, and evidently these restrictions are difficult to understand. I say this because Linda Jones, chief financial officer for USD 259, postponed a presentation until she could “receive clarifications from the state,” as reported in the Wichita Eagle story School district to leave TIF debate up to city, county.

This postponement uncovers a problem. If the Kansas school finance system is so complex that the chief financial officer of the state’s largest school district — someone paid $116,055 per year with a staff to assist — doesn’t have command of the mechanism, the system is not serving us well. It means that ordinary citizens can’t understand how things work without devoting extensive study to the issue. It also means that legislators and journalists probably don’t understand the full workings of the system. School finance, then, is understood by only a handful of politicians and bureaucrats in Topeka. And, you can be sure, by a handful of taxpayer-funded lobbyists for school districts that work the system to their advantage.

The Wichita school board had another reason for postponing action. By its next meeting, the window of time for the board to take action vetoing the formation of the TIF district will have closed. Board president Lynn Rogers told John Todd that there will be a presentation about TIFs at the board’s next meeting. But by then, it will — conveniently — be too late for the board to take action on the downtown arena TIF district. Does Rogers understand this, I wonder?

There is another TIF district that the city of Wichita approved that can be considered for veto at the school board’s next meeting. I’m going to ask that this matter be placed on the board’s agenda for discussion and a vote. I have no idea if I will be successful. But this will be a good test as to whether the Wichita school district is willing to address issues squarely and transparently, or dodge them as it did last night.

Will George Fahnestock Vote For the Wichita School Bond Issue?

Wichita’s mysterious “Boondoggler” posted today that George Fahnestock, the businessman selected to lead the campaign for the proposed bond issue for USD 259, the Wichita public schools, doesn’t live in the Wichita school district. The post is Fahnestock’s Motivation? A map of his house, along with school district boundaries, may be viewed here.

Earlier this year, USD 259 board members Lynn Rogers and Kevass Harding made an issue of the fact that a mailing address used by Citizens For Better Education, an anti-bond group, was in the Maize school district. A “fact check” sheet on USD 259’s website raised the same issue. You can almost feel the glee school district officials must have felt when they learned this.

So when it turns out that the celebrity spokesman for the bond issue doesn’t live in the Wichita school district, I wonder what the board’s reaction will be.

To me, it’s not a very substantive issue. There are many more important reasons to oppose this bond issue. But it raises these questions:

Shouldn’t a celebrity spokesperson for an issue at least be able to vote on the issue? Fahnestock, by not living within the boundaries of USD 259, isn’t eligible to vote for the bond issue.

Then, what is Fahnestock’s motivation for wanting the bond issue passed? As part or whole owner of two companies that work in the heating and air conditioning field, would that be any motivation?

Why is business support for this bond issue so weak that a businessman who lives within the district can’t be found to speak up for the bond?

Increasing the Wichita School Bond Issue: Why Was Courage Required?

Talking to news media during a break in the meeting of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, on Monday August 11, 2008, Connie Dietz referred to her surprise motion to increase the amount being asked for by $20 million, remarking “I knew what I wanted to do, and I guess I was trying to find the courage to do it.”

Personally, I want to take Ms. Dietz at her word when she says that her motion was unplanned. But I’ve talked to quite a few people in the community, and no one I’ve talked to believes that the board’s action at Monday’s meeting was not scripted in advance. I can understand how people might feel this way. The interplay between the actions of a citizens group and the board this summer rightly heaps suspicion on both groups, not to mention on Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, who many suspect is really directing the action in this drama. This architectural firm has a huge financial incentive for passing the largest bond issue possible.

But here’s my question: I wonder why it took courage to make this motion. After all, it’s for the “kids, kids, kids,” as board president Lynn Rogers said. And according to news reports, the district started with a list of $550 million in needed items, and then cut that down to the $350 million originally proposed for this bond issue. So this motion gets things closer to what the district believes it really needs.

So why the need for courage? Why stop at $370 million?

Could it be that Ms. Dietz realizes that the way the Wichita public schools raise money is through the force of government coercion?

Could it be that Ms. Dietz realizes the Wichita school district already has a tremendously large budget by any measure, and that asking for more would appear greedy?

Coould it be that Ms. Dietz has become aware of the Wichita school district’s monopoly on the use of public money for education, and how harmful this is to Wichita schoolchildren?

How to Pass the Wichita School Bond Issue

For tonight’s meeting of the board of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, a resolution has been prepared that calls for a vote on a proposed bond issue to be held on November 4, 2008. I don’t know if the board will vote to approve this measure or if they will even take a vote tonight, but I suspect the resolution will pass.

Randy Scholfield’s editorial Put school bond issue to public vote is correct in its assessment of the feckless campaign in favor of the bond issue. But it’s not all the fault of the school board or the district. That’s because the school district is constrained by laws that prohibit campaigning directly for the bond issue. It can undertake educational and informational campaigns only. (Not that this has stopped board members from making their opinions known. Connie Dietz: “I will do just about anything to ensure this bond issue is passed.” Barb Fuller: “I think our goal is to get this bond issue passed.”)

This law leads to the present situation where the development of the bond issue plan and its associated campaign is placed in the hands of either a citizen group with believability problems or Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture, an architectural firm with a huge financial incentive for passing the largest bond issue possible. See Wichita School Bond Issue: What We Don’t Know.

Citizens can have confidence and trust in government when it acts in an open and transparent manner. As shown in my post Wichita Public Schools: Open Records Requests Are a Burden, transparency is not a strength of the Wichita school district. This confusion over who is in charge of formulating the bond issue plan and running the campaign further harms the district’s reputation.

There is a solution, however, that would give the pro-bond group needed transparency and leadership.

There are two Wichita school board members whose terms of office end next year. These two members presently hold or recently held leadership positions. Either or both of these members — current president Lynn Rogers and immediate past president Connie Dietz — might consider resigning from the board so that they could lead the bond issue campaign.

Then, they could run for their former positions on the school board in the primary and general elections next March and April.

It would be a shame that the board would have to make do without their membership for a while. But given the difficulty in finding someone to effectively lead the bond issue campaign, something needs to happen if there is going to be a real debate about the bond issue this fall.

Wichita Business Journal: Please Explain the Wichita School Bond Impact

In an article in the June 27, 2008 Wichita Business Journal (Passage of 2000 school bond issue highlights Brooks’ legacy in Wichita), reporter Josh Funk makes another error. (The first error is explained in Wichita Business Journal: Where is the Increasing Enrollment in Wichita Schools?)

In this case, Mr. Heck claims, in his tribute to departing USD 259 (Wichita public school district) superintendent Winston Brooks, that “He leaves Wichita before resolution of a $350 million bond issue, but his legacy as superintendent will be the passage of another bond issue — this one for $284.5 million — eight years ago that bailed out a city from a depressed post-9/11 economy while making necessary improvements to the school district.”

Mr. Heck must be relying on reporting from his own newspaper, for a few months ago it printed the article “Brooks: Bond issue possible in spring” (December 28, 2007 Wichita Business Journal) in which Brooks and Joe Johnson, head of the school district’s architectural firm Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture say that the bond issue in 2000 did, indeed, save Wichita.

This is nonsense of the highest order. Government spending cannot create prosperity. Borrowing against future tax revenue only compounds the problem. See Wichita School Bond Issue Economic Fallacy.

The Wichita Eagle let its guest columnist make the same mistake when Wichita school board member Lynn Rogers tried to make the case that the 2000 bond issue was an economic benefit to Wichita. See Wichita School Bond Issue Impact Is an Illusion for discussion.

Wichita public schools: Open records requests are a burden

Listen to an audio broadcast of this article here.

I recently learned that USD 259 (the Wichita, Kansas public school district) considers it a burden when citizens make requests for records. At least that’s what Lynn Rogers, vice-president of the board of USD 259, told me at a May 12, 2008 meeting when I was invited to express concerns regarding my opposition to the proposed 2008 bond issue. I suspect the other board members and administration officials agree with him.

As a government institution, the Wichita public school district is subject to the Kansas Open Records Act, which requires it to respond to citizen requests for information. The ability to smoothly and competently, with a minimum of fuss, provide records to any requesting member of the public is a core competency that we should routinely expect of a public agency.

It is not the fault of a member of the public if a government agency is thrown into disarray by a few public records requests; rather, that suggests that the agency has not yet developed a professional competence in records archiving and management. The budget of the school district is $544,384,275 a year (2006-2007 school year). If they spent 0.01% of that on records management, the annual amount available for records management and retrieval would be $54,438.

I’d encourage the Wichita school district to follow the practice of District 300 in Illinois, which not only provides copies of records requested in a professional manner but posts all records requests and records retrieved under those requests on its own website, so anyone can see them. In this way the effort of the district to produce records is leveraged, and more citizens can become aware of school district information. The Illinois District 300 site may be viewed here: The District 300 Freedom of Information Act Online Program.

In order for school districts to effectively educate their students there must be a strong bond of trust between the school and its stakeholders in the community — parents, students, taxpayers, and district employees. These bonds of trust are undermined when the school district carps about providing records to the very public with whom it needs to build strong bonds. No better example of this is the scolding that interim superintendent Martin Libhart delivered to me at the May 12 meeting. “We do know how many classrooms we have, I can assure you of that,” he said. So Mr. Libhart, why not share those numbers with us?

Wichita school district officials say they want to be held accountable. Responding to records requests is one way for them to fulfill that desire. But the district’s attitude when faced with requests filed by citizens reveals a different attitude.

As Randy Brown recently wrote in The Wichita Eagle: “Without open government, you don’t have a democracy.” I rely on a greater authority, Thomas Jefferson, who said: “The same prudence, which, in private life, would forbid our paying our money for unexplained projects, forbids it in the disposition of public moneys.”

Wichita school expulsion myths

Recently Lynn Rogers, a USD 259 (Wichita public school district) board member, made this statement: “I know there are kids from many Catholic schools that have come to public schools when the Catholic schools have kicked them out.”

This attitude reflects a common perception or myth: that private and religious schools kick out the misbehaving students they don’t want to deal with. Since the public school system, by law, must accept them, these problem students are a reason why the public schools have such a difficult task. So goes the story, anyway.

I have read that this perception is false, so I decided to do some investigation on my own. The Kansas State Department of Education website can supply the number of students expelled from schools each year, not only for the public schools, but for some private and religious schools too.

As it turns out, the average number of students expelled from the Wichita Catholic Diocese schools is a little less than five per year. The Diocese covers an area much larger than Wichita, and presumably some of these expelled students didn’t live within the boundaries of USD 259. Given that, plus the fact that there just aren’t very many students expelled from the Catholic schools each year, accepting them can’t be much of a burden to a large school district like the Wichita public schools.

The statistics I looked at are revealing in another way: expulsions, adjusted for the number of enrolled students, are much more frequent in the Wichita public schools. For the eleven years shown in the following table, the Wichita public school system expels students at a rate nearly ten times higher than does the Wichita Catholic Diocese.

I wonder if the USD 259 board member who made the statement quoted at the beginning of this article is ignorant of these facts. Or perhaps the board member simply believes, without critical thought or investigation, the myths told about public schools. Or perhaps there is another explanation.

Wichita School Bond Issue: Explain Again the Need for a Delay

In an article published in the April 10, 2008 issue of The Bond Buyer newspaper, USD 259, the Wichita public school district, vice president Lynn Rogers is quoted as follows:

School board vice president Lynn Rogers said he supported the delay, but believes the bonds will be approved whenever the election is held.

“I don’t think if will make any difference if we have an election in May, in August, or in November,” he said.

“I’ve had 20 sessions with groups in the past couple of weeks, and nobody has been negative, except those from the anti-bond groups who always show up,” Rogers said. “I don’t think this delay is going to affect us.”

I have a few questions:

If Mr. Rogers believes the bond issue will be approved no matter when the election will be held, then why did he vote for the delay? His board as well as the staff and superintendent of USD 259 vigorously argued for the special election to be held in May. Why? The district claimed large savings would accrue from the early election. Also, an August or November election would delay the opening of a proposed high school by one full school year.

If Mr. Rogers believes the bond issue will be approved by voters on any election date, why is he willing to forgo these cost savings? And why is he willing to delay the opening of a high school by one year? Or were these facts they used to make their case really just fiction?

The board of USD 259 and the Citizens Alliance for Responsible Education, a group supporting passage of the bond issue, also claim that a delay is needed so that they have time to make their case to the voters. According to Sarah Olson, co-coordinator of CARE: “We don’t think there is sufficient time available to adequately inform Wichita voters on the merits of the bond issue.” But both she and Mr. Rogers claim that the response they received from groups they’ve been to is positive.

So why, again, the need for the delay and the loss of the savings we were told only an early May special election would bring?

Wichita School System Extends Its Monopoly

On Saturday February 12, 2005 I attended a meeting of the South Central Kansas Legislative Delegation. Lynn Rogers, then the USD 259 (the Wichita public school district) school board president, and Connie Dietz, then vice-president of the same body, attended. There had been a proposal to spend an additional $415 million over the next three years on schools. Asked if this would be enough to meet their needs, the Wichita school board members replied, “No.”

At least Mr. Rogers was not lying. More spending than that was approved, and true to his word, the Wichita Board of Education found it necessary this week to raise taxes so the public schools could have even more money.

I can’t speak for Mr. Rogers, but I imagine that this tax increase is viewed as only a temporary stop-gap measure until some more substantial funding can be obtained.

By the way, do you know that the Wichita Public School System has a marketing department? I wonder why an organization that requires customers to consume its product through compulsory attendance laws, that has the ability to raise funds through the coercive force of the state, and that has a government-mandated monopoly on the use of public education funds needs such a department. Then someone told me that’s where the school system’s lobbyists are. (I haven’t been able to verify that.) Now it made sense to me. The audience the school system is marketing to: the legislature and the governor.

And what do we get for all this? According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only one-third of Kansas eighth-graders (Wichita figures are not separately available) are considered “proficient” in mathematics, reading, and writing. (The State of Kansas, as do most states, reports much higher proficiency rates on its own tests, but these tests are subject to local pressure to show good results.)

Not much, it seems.

School choice initiatives are springing up all over the country except in Kansas, where the education bureaucracy remains entrenched, aided by one business that should have a vested interested in well-educated potential customers. Earlier this year Wichita Eagle editorialist Rhonda Holman poked fun at some school board candidates because they were interested in charter schools and vouchers. If things proceed as they have, in another generation few Kansas high schools graduates will be able to read Ms. Holman’s editorials.

Does that sound far-fetched? Consider a recent study by the American Institutes for Research, which found that “over half the graduates of four-year colleges and three-quarters of the graduates of junior and community colleges could not be categorized as possessing these ‘proficient’ skills.” At what skills are they not proficient? Understanding newspaper editorials was one such skill.

Local school districts claim they want to be held accountable, but they strenuously resist the one way that provides true accountability. That way is the market, where people vote with their dollars and the future welfare of their children.

True accountability can be achieved in only one way: let the government of the State of Kansas relinquish its monopoly on the financing and production of schooling — the very type of monopoly power that, if wielded by private enterprise, would be condemned as unjust and immoral.