Sui­cides unite school dis­tricts to lobby Topeka

The Kansas City Star - - Front Page - BY KATY BER­GEN kber­[email protected]­

John­son County’s six school dis­tricts have never worked to­gether to push their agenda in Topeka. But this school year, one grave is­sue has united them: a rise in teen sui­cide.

In the past year, each John­son County dis­trict had stu­dents who lost their life to sui­cide or se­ri­ously con­tem­plated it.

“Men­tal health is re­ally big­ger than a school is­sue,” said DeSoto Su­per­in­ten­dent Frank Har­wood. “One of the things that we’ve talked about as su­per­in­ten­dents is the idea that there’s a re­duc­tion in com­mu­nity re­sources, and that’s one of the con­cerns that we have.”

John­son County su­per­in­ten­dents have long met reg­u­larly to dis­cuss is­sues and share in­for­ma­tion about their school dis­tricts. But this school year, school lead­ers united around the is­sue of men­tal health and then de­cided to lend their col­lec­tive voice to ad­vo­cate to­gether on a num­ber of is­sues.

For the first time they have de­vel­oped a list of joint pri­or­i­ties, many of them in­volv­ing fund­ing, to present to state law­mak­ers this ses­sion, which be­gins Mon­day.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from each dis­trict — Blue Val­ley, DeSoto, Gard­ner Edger­ton, Olathe, Shawnee Mis­sion and Spring Hill, de­vel­oped the plat­form at the Kansas State As­so­ci­a­tion of School Boards con­ven­tion last month.

“One of the rea­sons that it’s

pos­i­tive is that so many of our leg­is­la­tors rep­re­sent more than one dis­trict,” Har­wood said. “A lot of times we do have the same mes­sage. And on these is­sues we’re all in the same place.”

“I call it am­pli­fied voice,” said Brad Strat­ton, pres­i­dent of the Shawnee Mis­sion school board. “We wanted to am­plify our voice by com­ing to­gether on some key is­sues.”

Here are four pri­or­i­ties John­son County dis­trict lead­ers are ex­pected to col­lec­tively ad­vo­cate for this leg­isla­tive ses­sion:

They want the Leg­is­la­ture to ex­pand sup­port for be­hav­io­r­ial and men­tal health ser­vices.

School dis­tricts aren’t equipped to han­dle the spec­trum of men­tal health needs for stu­dents and par­ents, Har­wood said.

That’s why this school year dis­tricts strength­ened part­ner­ships with John­son County Men­tal Health and cre­ated a Zero Rea­sons Why cam­paign.

And it’s why dis­trict lead­ers want to make sure the state sup­ports such com­mu­nity groups that can fill in the gaps.

Specif­i­cally, John­son County school lead­ers want the state to ex­pand a $10 mil­lion pi­lot pro­gram that funds part­ner­ships be­tween com­mu­nity and school-based men­tal health providers, which means stu­dents and fam­i­lies have more coun­selors and so­cial work­ers avail­able to them.

They are also ad­vo­cat­ing for the restora­tion of funds to the Kansas Depart­ment of Ag­ing and Dis­abil­ity Ser­vices bud­get, and have con­demned any fu­ture cuts to grants that would sup­port com­mu­nity men­tal health cen­ters.

“That part of it is new in the way that we’ve started think­ing about things dif­fer­ently,” Har­wood said. “How do we tackle this as a whole com­mu­nity rather than just a school com­mu­nity?”

They will op­pose any ef­fort to change the Kansas Con­sti­tu­tion around is­sues of school fund­ing.

For eight years, the state and four plain­tiff school dis­tricts have en­gaged in a le­gal dis­pute about whether Kansas gives schools enough money to pro­vide an “ad­e­quate” and “eq­ui­table” ed­u­ca­tion to stu­dents.

The Leg­is­la­ture has ar­gued its fund­ing is suf­fi­cient; school dis­tricts have ar­gued it isn’t. While rul­ings in the case, Gan­non v. Kansas, con­tinue to de­ter­mine whether school fund­ing is con­sti­tu­tional, some pub­lic of­fi­cials have said the lit­i­ga­tion should not be an op­tion.

A con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment that would limit the abil­ity of school dis­tricts to sue for more state money failed to progress last year. But the is­sue will un­doubt­edly resur­face in 2019. Sup­port­ers need to con­vince two-thirds of the House and Se­nate to ap­prove the amend­ment be­fore it could go to a statewide vote.

John­son County schools’ joint plat­form states that dis­tricts will “op­pose any ef­fort to amend the pro­vi­sions of the Kansas Con­sti­tu­tion that en­sure the in­alien­able rights of the stu­dents of the state of Kansas to a qual­ity pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.”

“It’s sim­ply to say that we de­fend the con­sti­tu­tion as it stands cur­rently. … It says the state is to pro­vide a suitable ed­u­ca­tion for its cit­i­zens,” said Olathe school board Pres­i­dent Shan­non Wick­liffe. “Any­thing that would change that we would be op­posed to.”

They want the school fi­nance for­mula to ac­count for in­fla­tion.

Last sum­mer, the Kansas Supreme Court once again ruled that the state’s lat­est school fund­ing plan is in­ad­e­quate — it does not pro­vide enough funds for school dis­tricts to of­fer a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion.

But the court in­di­cated that it would find the plan con­sti­tu­tional if law­mak­ers added money that ac­counts for in­fla­tion.

John­son County lead­ers sup­port a plan rec­om­mended by the Kansas State Board of Ed­u­ca­tion to add $90 mil­lion per year over the course of four years, on top of a $522 mil­lion in­crease in state aid law­mak­ers have al­ready ap­proved that is ramp­ing up over the next five years.

Some Kansas Repub­li­cans would rather build a new school fund­ing for­mula from scratch be­cause they be­lieve the state can’t af­ford adding in­fla­tion fund­ing. But the John­son County plat­form in­sists that pub­lic schools must be fully funded as soon as pos­si­ble.

“If the Leg­is­la­ture agrees to this fund­ing early in the 2019 ses­sion, it could re­solve the cur­rent lit­i­ga­tion and al­low school dis­tricts to more ef­fec­tively plan for the up­com­ing school year, rather than wait­ing un­til the end of the ses­sion and be­yond,” the John­son County plat­form reads.

“The uncer­tainty makes it very dif­fi­cult for school dis­tricts,” Wick­liffe said. “We’re talk­ing about re­ally large or­ga­ni­za­tions that need to be strate­gic and plan­ning around bud­gets, and you can’t do that when there is uncer­tainty about whether we’re go­ing to be able to open school or not.”

Gard­ner Edger­ton school board Pres­i­dent Shawn Carlisle said in­fla­tion ad­just­ments must be in­cluded to help dis­tricts cover the ris­ing costs of health care, util­i­ties, trans­porta­tion and other ser­vices.

“Ig­nor­ing in­fla­tion is es­sen­tially a school fund­ing cut,” he said.

They want law­mak­ers to elim­i­nate bond caps.

Since 2016, the state has capped the amount of money that can be raised in school bond ref­er­en­dums for con­struc­tion and in­fra­struc­ture.

Groups like the Kansas As­so­ci­a­tion of School Boards have op­posed the cap be­cause it could “ham­per dis­trict ef­forts to im­prove or ex­pand their build­ings and fa­cil­i­ties.” For ex­am­ple, Carlisle pointed out, if Wi­chita schools pass a bond ref­er­en­dum for $175 mil­lion of a $250 mil­lion an­nual cap, only $75 mil­lion re­mains for all other Kansas school dis­tricts.

The John­son County plat­form calls for the bond cap to be re­pealed.

“Bond caps cre­ate po­ten­tial for first-come, first-serve win­ners and losers across the state in re­gards to lo­cal voter­ap­proved cap­i­tal projects,” Carlisle said. “The elim­i­na­tion of the bond cap would al­low John­son County dis­tricts to plan cap­i­tal projects that ben­e­fit John­son County stu­dents with­out the need to con­sider the tim­ing of all other Kansas school dis­trict cap­i­tal project ini­tia­tives.”

Five of the John­son County school boards ap­proved the leg­isla­tive plat­form. Spring Hill is ex­pected to dis­cuss it at a meet­ing on Mon­day.

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