By John Celock
Kansas Republicans are keeping the heat on the Democratic nominee for governor over remarks his appointee to an education policy panel made over rural school consolidation.
The Kansas Republican Party released a radio ad Wednesday criticizing Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis, the state House minority leader, for appointing former state Senate Vice President John Vratil (R-Leawood) to the state School Efficiency Task Force, after Vratil’s 2011 comments that rural school districts would be “starved out of existence” by the state. The radio ad follows Gov. Sam Brownback (R) attacking Davis for the appointment and rural GOP state lawmakers demanding Vratil’s ouster.
“Paul Davis and his inner circle don’t get it. And rural legislators are supporting Brownback’s demand to stop the destruction of our small towns,” the ad says, according to a text circulated by the Kansas GOP. “Governor Brownback will protect rural education and our community schools. Sam Brownback wants kids from small towns to have the same chance as everybody else. Just like he did growing up.”
The rural school consolidation issue has become a rallying cry for Republicans in the state in recent weeks, with Brownback singling out Davis for Vratil’s appointment during a debate earlier this month. Last week, rural Republicans in the state Senate demanding Vratil’s ouster, while rural Republicans in the state House questioned why Davis has supported Vratil. Vratil, a moderate Republican and longtime Brownback opponent has emerged as one of Davis’ education advisors. Vratil is also a leader of a group of roughly 100 moderate Republicans, mainly former officeholders, who have endorsed Davis. Davis has pledged his support for rural schools and that he does not support rural school consolidation.
At issue are comments Vratil made to the Topeka Capitol-Journal in 2011 when he said that his constituents in suburban Johnson County were upset with their tax dollars being used for rural school districts.
“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.”
Vratil has received support from state Rep. Don Hineman (R-Dighton), a moderate, who penned an op-ed for the Hays Post earlier this week saying that Vratil was being misinterpreted. Hineman told The Celock Report earlier this week that Vratil was talking about austerity budgets and the impact they could have on rural schools when he made the comments in 2011.
“I was in the Legislature in 2011 and I know what we were going through at the time. We were facing austere budgets,” Hineman told The Celock Report this week. “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.”
The Capitol-Journal article does not include comments from Vratil on austerity budgets. Vratil, the attorney for a suburban Johnson County school district, has not commented on the debate surrounding his service on the task force.
The debate over Vratil is part of a larger battle between moderate and conservative Republicans in the state GOP, which has waged for several years. Vratil has long opposed Brownback’s conservative philosophies and was vocal in opposing conservatives who defeated moderate GOP senators in 2012.
Democratic activists have also pointed to the service of Dave Trabert, the president of the Kansas Policy Institute, on the task force and a report he authored that includes mention of consolidation. In the report, Trabert said consolidation should be discussed but does not suggest the state forcing it. A draft copy of the task force report mentions consolidation as an option.
Rural Republicans have said that any discussion of consolidation should be made at the local level, where the impact will be better understood by decision makers.
“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,” state Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce (R-Nickerson) said last week.