By John Celock
More rural Republican lawmakers in Kansas are opposing the Democratic nominee for governor’s appointee to a school policy task force due to past comments that support consolidating rural schools.
Ten Republican House members and one representative-elect released a joint statement Friday saying they “condemn” Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis’ appointment of former state Senate Vice President John Vratil (R-Leawood) to the state’s School Efficiency Task Force. Davis is the state House minority leader. Earlier this week, 13 Republican state senators and one senator-elect called on Davis to oust Vratil from the schools panel. The opposition to Vratil centers on comments he made in 2011 saying that rural school districts “would be starved out of existence.” The issue has been growing in importance since Brownback challenged Davis over the appointment during last Saturday’s gubernatorial debate.
“Our concern is letting people know the type of people Paul Davis would put into positions,” state Rep. Kyle Hoffman (R-Coldwater) told The Celock Report. “It is concerning that he would put someone like that in a position after he made statements about wanting to consolidate.”
Vratil, a moderate Republican and longtime Brownback opponent who retired from the Senate in 2012, told the Topeka Capitol-Journal in 2011 that the state would likely force rural school districts to consolidate. He said that his constituents in suburban Johnson County were upset over tax money being sent to rural districts. Vratil, who focused on education issues in the Senate, has emerged as one of Davis’ top education policy advisors.
“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.”
Johnson County and rural Kansas have long been at odds over funding from the state. Many in the rural central and western parts of the state believe that residents and lawmakers from Johnson County, just outside of Kansas City, do not treat the other areas of the state fairly.
Vratil is a leader of a group of 100 moderate Republicans, almost all former officeholders, who have endorsed Davis in the gubernatorial race. Education issues have become a top issue in the faceoff between Brownback and Davis.
Hoffman said the main concern comes over what the group sees is Vratil’s opposition to rural schools. He said that the efficiency panel should be looking at all ideas to save money and make Kansas schools more efficient. He believes that Vratil’s past comments, shows that Vratil has an “apparent disregard for the rural schools.” Hoffman said that the House group is not asking Davis to fire Vratil but wants to point out Davis’ appointment.
“(Davis) made his choice to appoint who he wanted to. That’s his prerogative as the minority leader,” Hoffman said. “We’re concerned because of statements (Vratil) has made. He appointed Vratil to one of the highest things he can appoint him to at this point. Is that the type of governor he’d be, that he has a disregard for western Kansas.”
Davis’ campaign was not immediately available for comment, but on Thursday Davis campaign spokesman Chris Pumpelly released a statement saying that Davis opposes rural school district consolidation in response to the Senate Republicans call for Vratil’s ouster.
“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 on Thursday. “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.”
Hoffman said one of the biggest concerns with a forced consolidation of rural school districts by the state is the possibility of a one-size fits all program. He noted that if districts were forced to consolidate it would cause stress for students given the distance between schools in rural parts of the state.
Hoffman and other Republicans have said it would be best for local school districts to make any consolidation decisions since they would know what would be best for their regions of the state.
“My district is a good example. I have a district that is two hours across. My schools range from 1000 students to 150 students,” Hoffman told The Celock Report. “It is hard for me to fathom to make a decision in that district to treat all of them the same. For us to do it on the state level to make it is it not good.
“It is got to be a local decision.”
Debate over the consolidation issue has been circulating for years. In 2013, state House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) circulated a memo to GOP lawmakers that mentioned consolidation and costs involved with larger districts versus smaller ones. The Topeka Capitol-Journal reported at the time that a Merrick aide said that the memo was not advocating consolidation but rather pointing out the administrative costs.
In recent days Brownback opponents have taken to Twitter to point to a report written by Dave Trabert, the president of the Kansas Policy Institute and a Merrick appointee to the efficiency task force, that mentions consolidation. They have questioned why Republicans are not targeting Trabert.
In the report, Trabert mentions that consolidation should be discussed but does not mention a state mandated consolidation program. Trabert also used the report to promote consolidation of “non-instruction” management functions of school districts to save money. Hoffman said that he could see a look at the administrative functions, but that any closure of schools needs to be a local decision.
Those in the House say that Kansas needs a governor who will focus on the entire state, including the rural areas.
“Strong Kansas schools means all schools, not just the large ones in metro areas,” Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco) said in the statement. It’s extremely revealing that at the same time the state is seeing a resurgence in rural Kansas through Governor Brownback’s initiatives like Rural Opportunity Zones, a hospitable tax and business climate, and focus on water issues, Paul Davis shows no regard or vision to work within the unique circumstances of rural areas.”
Kansas Representatives Opposing Vratil Appointment
Rep. Steve Alford (R-Ulysses)
Rep. Bud Estes (R-Dodge City)
Rep. John Ewy (R-Jetmore)
Rep. Kyle Hoffman (R-Coldwater)
Rep. Jack Thimesch (R-Cunningham)
Rep. Sue Boldra (R-Hays)
Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady (R-Palco)
Rep. Troy Waymaster (R-Luray)
Rep. Joe Seiwert (R-Pretty Prairie)
Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina)
Rep.-elect Basil Dannebohm (R-Ellinwood)