By John Celock
A moderate Republican lawmaker in Kansas is fighting back against fellow Republicans who are being critical of an education advisor to the Democratic gubernatorial nominee.
State Rep. Don Hineman (R-Dighton) wrote an op-ed in the Hays Post Monday defending former state Senate Vice President John Vratil’s (R-Leawood) comments from 2011 that he wanted to force rural school consolidation by saying the schools would be “starved out of existence” by the state. Vratil, a moderate Republican, has emerged as an education policy advisor to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis and as a Davis appointee to a schools efficiency panel. Rural Republicans in the state Senate are demanding that Davis, the state House minority leader, remove Vratil from the panel, while rural Republicans in the House are trying to highlight who Davis is surrounding himself with.
Hineman, who represents a rural district, told The Celock Report, that he does not believe that Vratil was saying that he wanted to force consolidation or to have the state government take the money away from rural districts. He said that his legislative colleagues do not realize what Vratil meant in the statements.
“I absolutely not believe that,” Hineman said of people who believe that Vratil wants to have the state force consolidation. “That is misinterpretation of his quotes.”
In question are comments Vratil made to the Topeka Capitol-Journal in 2011 where he said that suburban Johnson County voters were upset with their tax dollars being used on rural districts. Vratil, who is the attorney for the Blue Valley School District/USD 229 in suburban Johnson County, has been a longtime opponent of Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and is one of 100 moderate Republicans, almost all former officeholders to endorse Davis over Brownback. Education issues have emerged as a top issue in the governor’s race, with Brownback hitting Davis over the rural consolidation issue. Davis’ spokesman has said that the Democrat does not support rural school consolidation.
“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.”
Hineman used his op-ed to explain that Vratil, who he said grew up in rural Pawnee County, to say that Vratil “wasn’t talking about forced consolidation.” Instead Hineman wrote that Vratil was discussing the impact of austerity budgets and how they impact school funding, including funding for rural schools. In the Capitol-Journal article, Vratil did not discuss austerity budgets, but indicated that he believed the education funding would be a top legislative issue and that school districts in suburban districts in Johnson County had enough money. The article centered on the challenges facing rural school districts.
Hineman told The Celock Report that his work in the Legislature in 2011 gives him insight into what he believes Vratil really meant.
“I was in the Legislature in 2011 and I know what we were going through at the time. We were facing austere budgets,” Hineman said. “I felt at the time when I read it in 2011 that was what John was saying. That if funding was not adequate for public education some school districts cease to exist. He makes a reference to the schools he reps in Johnson County would survive but that small rural schools would have problems.”
Vratil could not be reached at either his home or school district office for comment on the meaning of his 2011 statement.
The rest of Hineman’s op-ed piece deals with the issues surrounding rural schools and that he wants people to know that rural schools will not be consolidated. He used part of the piece to highlight problems in past consolidations. Hineman told The Celock Report that he was trying to stop fear and highlight rural issues.
“There is a real threat to the small rural schools,” Hineman said. “That is by shutting off the flow of public funds to the schools.”
State Sen. Jake LaTurner (R-Pittsburg), a member of the group demanding Vratil’s ouster, does not believe the new explanation of what Vratil meant. He had not read Hineman’s op-ed. He said that consolidation would be a death knell for rural communities.
“It seems to me that the original comments were meant that he wanted to put the schools in a position that they were forced to consolidate,” LaTurner told The Celock Report. “Those of us who represent rural Kansas know if the schools closed that there is nothing left to keep the community together.”
Vratil is not the only efficiency task force member to have mentioned consolidation in the past. Dave Trabert, a Republican appointee and the president of the Kansas Policy Institute, wrote a report where he said consolidation should be looked at but should be a local decision. He also noted the possibility of consolidating administrative functions not relating to instruction.
Rural Republicans have said that consolidation should be a local decision and not forced by the state.
Hineman told The Celock Report that he believes that there will be tensions between rural, suburban and urban schools in the state for funding, but said the “current funding formula meets the needs of all students in the state.” With the gubernatorial race focusing on education funding, he said that he does not believe that the state has put enough money into the classroom under Brownback.
Davis, along with Democrats, the teachers union and his moderate Republican allies, has been critical of Brownback’s education funding record, saying he made cuts. Brownback and his allies have said that the governor and conservative lawmakers have increased education funding annually since 2011 and lay blame at former Democratic Govs. Mark Parkinson and Kathleen Sebelius for the cuts.
“There has been some additional money put into the schools in the last few years. A major portion of that has been playing catch-up in KPERS pensions and there have been more money into capital improvement,” Hineman said. “If we look strictly in dollars to the classroom it can’t be said that we added money into the schools. If you look into dollars into the classroom on a per pupil basis I don’t believe we’ve keeping up.”
Rep. Kyle Hoffman (R-Coldwater), who helped organize the House opposition to Vratil, told The Celock Report that Brownback has raised the education funding. He reiterated that the House wanted to let Kansans know who Davis was talking to about education.
“We have increased funding from the 2009-2010 level since Brownback and many of us took office, education spending in Kansas is at an all time high. Now some smaller schools could be seeing less total dollars from the state because they are losing students and that is definitely a concern in rural areas,” Hoffman said. “But remarks like Vratil gave, sure gives the impression that he feels Johnson County is paying too much to keep western Kansas schools open. Like I said before, we wanted to make our constituents aware of the type of people that Davis seems to listen to.”