Rural Republicans Demand Democrat Axe Education Pick

By John Celock

The rural Republicans in the Kansas Senate are demanding that the Democratic nominee for governor fire his appointee to a school policy panel due to past comments supporting consolidation of rural schools.

The 13 senators and one senator-elect are asking Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis, the state House minority leader, to remove former Senate Vice President John Vratil (R-Leawood) from the state School Efficiency Task Force due to comments Vratil made in 2011 saying rural school districts “would be starved out of existence.” The letter follows a similar call made by Brownback at Saturday’s gubernatorial debate, where he stressed his support for rural schools. Vratil, a moderate Republican, is a longtime Brownback opponent and has emerged as one of Davis’ top education policy advisors.

“Rural Republican senators want to show support for Governor Brownback’s stand to fight for rural school districts and protect our communities against liberal politicians attempting to take away our local control,” state Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce (R-Nickerson) told The Celock Report about the demand for Vratil’s ouster.

Vratil, who retired from the Senate in 2012, told the Topeka Capitol-Journal in 2011 that rural schools would likely to be forced to consolidate by the state. Vratil said at the time that his constituents in suburban Johnson County were upset that their tax money was sent to rural school districts in the state.

“Rural school districts will be starved out of existence,” Vratil told the Capitol-Journal. “And the sooner they realize that, the better off they will be.”

The Capitol-Journal also said that Vratil added that “school districts will be forced to consolidate.”

Senate Majority Whip Garrett Love (R-Montezuma) told The Celock Report that with Davis placing Vratil on the school effiency panel and taking education policy advice from him, he is worried that Vratil is not focused on the entire state. Many Kansas residents, particularly in the central and western parts of the state, have long viewed Johnson County, outside of Kansas City, as not taking the views of the entire state into mind in policy debates.

“He put him on the panel and is considering him as a top education advisor,” Love said of Davis and Vratil. “To me that’s concerning because his interests are not for all Kansas kids but is for Johnson County kids.”

Davis campaign spokesman Chris Pumpelly told The Celock Report that the Democrat is opposed to rural school district consolidation and he said that the education debate should be focused on Brownback, who he said has made major cuts to school funding.

“The biggest threat to schools across the state is four more years of Sam Brownback’s failed experiment. Paul Davis opposes school consolidation as strongly as he opposes Sam Brownback’s massive cuts to education, and Sam Brownback and his allies know it,” Pumpelly said. “The governor made the largest single cut to our schools in state history and had the nerve to call it ‘a victory.’ These cuts are devastating Kansas schools, kids and parents – especially in rural communities. Since 2012, Paul Davis has demanded the cuts be restored. As governor, Paul Davis will return to our Kansas tradition of strong public schools and restore Brownback’s education cuts so we can get our economy moving in the right direction again.

Vratil could not be reached for comment at his home or his law office.

Brownback and Republicans have long fought the charge that they have underfunded schools. During an interview on the “Joseph Ashby Show” on KQAM radio in Wichita Thursday morning, Brownback said that he has increased education spending each year he has been in office. He placed blame with Davis for voting for education funding cuts proposed by former Gov. Mark Parkinson (D). Education is one of the top issue in the gubernatorial race.

The school consolidation issue has floated for several years. In 2013, House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) circulated a memo to his caucus that mentioned rural school district consolidation, noting that larger districts spend less per student than smaller ones, the Topeka Capitol-Journal reported at the time. A Merrick aide told the Capitol-Journal that the report was not advocating consolidation but was pointing out that administrative costs can be cut for efficiency.

Dave Trabert, a Merrick appointee to the panel and the president of the Kansas Policy Institute, has authored a report that touches on the consolidation issue. In the report, Trabert said that schools should look into consolidating “non-instruction” management functions as a cost savings. Trabert also wrote that a consolidation discussion should take place, but also discussed the need for local decision making.

Love and Bruce both told The Celock Report that local school districts should make decisions on school consolidations and not have the state make the decisions. This position was reiterated to The Celock Report by Smith Center Mayor Trey Joy (R). Smith Center is a largely rural community not far from the Nebraska border.

Bruce and Love said a main concern with consolidation would be the distance students would need to travel in rural areas to get to school.

“Forcing the consolidation of rural schools, which results in students spending countless hours riding school buses, rarely makes economic sense and takes away the child’s ability to succeed,” Bruce said.

The Republicans call is an extension of not only the debate between suburban Johnson County and the rural areas of the state, but also the moderate vs. conservative civil war in the Kansas Republican Party. Vratil is a longtime leader of the moderate wing of the party and is part of a group of 100 mainly former moderate Republican elected officials who have endorsed Davis. Vratil is also a board member of the Kansas Values Institute, a group which has been supporting moderate Republicans in state legislative primaries this year.

In terms of local control of consolidation issues, Love told The Celock Report that he could see local decisions but not ones coming from the state.

“In certain communities it might be in their interests and those communities will know that better than Paul Davis or people in Topeka will ever will,” Love said. “That is a decision for them to make.”

Kansas Senators Asking For Davis To Dismiss Vratil

Senate Vice-President Jeff King (R-Independence)
Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce (R-Nickerson)
Sen. Caryn Tyson (R-Parker)
Sen. Mitch Holmes (R-St. John)
Senate Majority Whip Garrett Love (R-Montezuma)
Sen. Larry Powell (R-Garden City)
Sen. Jacob LaTurner (R-Pittsburg)
Sen. Forrest Knox (R-Altoona)
Sen. Tom Arpke (R-Salina)
Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer (R-Grinnell)
Sen. Elaine Bowers (R-Concordia)
Sen. Dennis Pyle (R-Hiawatha)
Sen.-elect Rick Wilborn (R-McPherson)