It’s fall. That means it’s the season of cheering for your favorite football team, visiting the pumpkin patch with the grandkids and attending planning sessions for the 2014 Kansas legislative session. The first two are much more enjoyable than the latter. And I say that with no disrespect to any legislator or legislative committee.
Last week I attended the monthly meeting of the Legislative Committee of the Kansas City, Kan., Area Chamber of Commerce. Most, if not all of those attending, came with their specific agendas, whether it was a nonprofit health organization, mega-corporation or individual taxpayer. My primary concern is the small business owner that makes up the bulk of membership in Business West.
A substantial amount of state expenditures goes for education—particularly kindergarten through the 12th grade. A group called “Schools for Fair Funding” that includes a collation of rural and urban districts, including Kansas City, Kan., has argued before the Kansas Supreme Court that the Kansas Legislature is failing to fund schools adequately. The plaintiffs cite the Kansas Constitution that was amended in 1960 to state “the legislature shall make suitable provision for finance” for public education. The key here is the definition of “suitable.”
Moderate Republican and Democrat legislators have argued that education has been underfunded. Tea party politicos, including very conservative legislators, have said they will resist increases in education funding regardless of what the Supreme Court rules. Some state government observers say this could prompt a constitutional crisis.
Funding for education is also a major expense at the local level. I look at my property tax bill and one-third of it goes to the Kansas City, Kan., School District. Taxes are a major concern for small businesses—something that I remind all taxing units when elected officials prepare their annual budgets. Simply stated, local taxpayers are overburdened.
I look at the graduation rate in the Kansas City, Kan., School District. It is about 75 percent. That’s an improvement compared to several years ago. But I have yet to see any successful business that pleases only three-fourths of its customers. Those asking for more school funding would argue that more money is needed to help increase graduation rates. Conservatives would argue that increased funding in past years has not helped improve education. The truth may well be someplace in the middle.
I commend our new mayor, Mark Holland, for arranging a meeting of representatives of municipalities and school districts in Wyandotte County to develop a common legislative message. However, it was disappointing such a meeting was not public. And I don’t for a minute accept the excuse that public officials would be hesitant to express their honest views unless it was a closed meeting. Simply stated, public officials discussing public policy should do it in public or they don’t have any business being public officials.
I am not going to second-guess the Kansas Supreme Court about its decision on school finance. However, I would hope that decision would come at least by early January next year so the legislature can have adequate time to consider it. However, based on past sessions, not much happens until the last minute. I hope I am wrong, but I wouldn’t take any bets on any early decisions as 2014 is an election year.
Murrel Bland is the former editor of The Wyandotte West and The Piper Press. He is the executive director of Business West.