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Kansas school finance consultant fields questions, will deliver report later

by Celia Llopis-Jepsen, Kansas News Service

Even before releasing their results, consultants hired to guide Kansas lawmakers to a school funding plan that meets legal muster endured a grilling on Friday.

How, wondered lawmakers, would the consultants reach their conclusions on how much money school districts need to help students succeed academically? Why do the consultants seem to be excluding the overhead, non-classroom expenses of running schools from their study? And what about criticism of work they’d done in other states?

The details are as important as the stakes are high. Lawmakers inch closer by the day to a deadline for fixing school funding after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the state isn’t spending enough on education.

School districts want the legislature to pump hundreds of millions of dollars in new money into schools — drawn from a budget already strained in recent years by tumbling revenue.

But lawmakers are waiting to see what the consultants say. The study is due in mid-March.

On Friday, lawmakers got their first peek at the methods behind what will be the first significant analysis of school spending they have commissioned in more than a decade.

Past studies concluded Kansas spends too little on its schools. Those results have factored into several court rulings over the past decade and a half that found public education underfunded to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

So the Republican-controlled legislature hired consultants. Lori Taylor is an economist at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service who researches school finance. WestEd is a nonprofit education consultancy. Together, they inked a $245,000 contract with the Kansas Legislature late last month to produce the new study.

Taylor and WestEd faced a barrage of questions Friday from lawmakers about the nitty gritty of their work. How, for instance, would they calculate a school district’s per pupil spending and factor in the costs of early childhood education?

Republican Rep. Melissa Rooker, a key player in trying to find a legislative solution to school finance, wondered why some out-of-classroom costs would be excluded from calculations of what schools spend to get academic results.

“We have districts that are having to cannibalize their general operating funds in order to cover the cost of transporting students,” she said.

Taylor said the study will take such situations into account.

The analysis will look at what different school districts spend and what academic outcomes — such as high-school graduation and college continuation rates — they get for that money.

Lawmakers will be under pressure to absorb the reports results and turn around a new school finance law quickly. The report is due March 15, leaving just a month and a half to craft a bill, debate and pass it, get the governor to sign it, and have lawyers at Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office prepare legal briefs defending it.

Lawyers for the state wanted lawmakers to pass a bill by early March because they were concerned there would not be enough time otherwise to finish the legal briefs defending the legislation before the Kansas Supreme Court’s April 30 deadline.

Taylor started Friday by defending her research chops after a memo made the rounds in the Legislature criticizing her work.

As reported in the Topeka Capital-Journal, a cost analysis Taylor did more than a decade ago amid a Texas school finance fight came under fire from a judge ruling on a school finance lawsuit there. Taylor’s analysis supported the idea that Texas was spending more than needed on education.

“I strongly disagree with the judge’s conclusion that our numbers were implausible,” she said. “If anything we overestimated the costs.”

The Kansas Supreme Court has said it wants to see in-depth reasoning behind the Legislature’s decisions. Last spring lawmakers and the state tried to show their work with a four-page statistical analysis that the court deemed to be cursory and methodologically questionable.
That pushed lawmakers to commission a more in-depth study this year.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

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Here’s some things Kansas lawmakers have done while avoiding school spending drama

by Jim McLean, Kansas News Service

Kansas lawmakers head into the next stretch of this year’s legislative session after advancing bills offering tax breaks to some smaller businesses, compensation to people thrown in prison unjustly and a welcome mat to industrial chicken growers.

The bigger, harder questions before them remain unanswered. After gaveling out on Thursday, they take off a few days.

When legislators return, they’ll still need to find a way to comply with a court order to up the state’s education game. That could cost the state another $600 million a year in aid to local school districts.

They’ll need to do that while struggling to balance overall state government spending, a task that’s proven particularly difficult in recent years.

And the lawmakers will revisit whether to expand Medicaid coverage to more of the working poor, an Obamacare flashpoint that’s divided the Republican-dominated legislature from its GOP governors.

Despite the fast pace, education and the budget still remain the major issues for us to address.

“It’s always amazing how fast session moves,” Rep. Don Schroeder, a Republican from Hesston, wrote in his most recent newsletter to constituents. Now, he wrote, “the pace picks up. … Despite the fast pace, education and the budget still remain the major issues for us to address.”

This week, the committees that study and refine bills shut down so that legislators could spend time on the floors of the House and Senate moving bills hatched in one chamber across the Capitol rotunda to the other.

A tax-cut bill that passed the Senate easily may get more intense scrutiny in the House, given the need to free up potentially hundreds of millions of additional dollars to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court order to increase public school funding.

The bill restores a small business tax deduction that lawmakers repealed last year when they rolled back then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s income tax cuts. Several senators said they voted for the measure with reservations because of its estimated $21 million cost to next year’s budget.

“We are going to be removing money from our budget today … that we might need, either for schools or, for example, Medicaid expansion,” said Republican Sen. Barbara Bollier, of Mission Hills.

That concern prompted eight of the Senate’s 40 members to vote against the bill, including Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka.

“While there are those who complain how more money for schools will damage other parts of the budget, the first bill of significant cost to the budget is a tax cut,” Hensley said.

That could be a costly misstep in the eyes of the court, Hensely said, if lawmakers struggle to come up with the money needed for schools.

The Senate also passed a bill aimed at enticing more large poultry producers to the state after a lengthy debate about potential consequences to communities and the environment.

Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat, was one of several northeast Kansas lawmakers drawn into a controversy late last year over plans by chicken processing giant Tyson to build a plant near Tonganoxie. Tyson ultimately scrapped its plans for that plant.

“People get really frustrated when they get jerked around by state government and large industrial ag concerns who come in literally overnight and say ‘this is a done deal,’” Holland said.

Holland attempted to add language to the bill to allow residents in a county where such a facility is proposed to petition for a public vote. But his amendment was defeated by senators who argued against doing anything that might discourage poultry processors from expanding in Kansas.

“Part of the state, grant you, does not want this type of operation and that’s understandable,” said Sen. Bud Estes, a Dodge City Republican. “But there’s other parts of the state that this would fit in quite nicely.”

Estes and others said the millions of pounds of “dry manure” — achieved with industrial methods that lessen the stench — produced by mega chicken-breeding facilities would be used as fertilizer.

Legislation authorizing a system for compensating people who spend time in Kansas prisons for crimes they didn’t commit proved less controversial. On Thursday, both the House and Senate passed compensation bills by wide margins.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner called it an opportunity “to right a wrong for Kansas.”

In urging passage of the Senate bill, Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner called it an opportunity “to right a wrong for Kansas.”

Currently, Kansas is one of 18 states that offers no compensation for individuals who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

The bill passed by the Senate would provide exonerated individuals $50,000 for each year spent in prison and an additional $25,000 for each year on probation or parole.

The House-passed bill is more generous. It authorizes $80,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment.

A conference committee of House and Senate members will start working to reconcile the bills next week when lawmakers return.

And lawmakers have advanced legislation that would make “swatting” illegal. That push came after the death of a man in Wichita last year. What started with a rivalry between online gamers ended with police crashing into what they’d been tricked into thinking was a hostage situation and shooting Andrew Finch.

Swatting, as in summoning a police SWAT team with a phony 9-1-1 call, is a prank associated largely with gamers. Partly because they battle long distance, swatting is a way to pursue revenge in the real world.

The legislation would set stiff penalties for reporting a bogus situation with the intent of sending police out to attack a person’s home.

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

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Nichols runs for District Court judge

Mike Nichols

Democrat Mike Nichols has launched his campaign for Wyandotte County District Court Judge, citing his years of experience representing the citizens of Wyandotte County.

He is running for the Division 5 position, as Judge Dexter Burdette is retiring later this year. Jane Sieve Wilson also is running for the Division 5 position.

Nichols, a former Wyandotte County prosecutor, has spent the last several years as a lawyer in private practice in downtown Kansas City, Kansas. He handles criminal, divorce, child custody, juvenile, probate and guardianship cases.

“My practice involves being in court in Wyandotte County almost every day. Whether a client is going through a divorce, fighting for custody of their children or has been charged with a crime, they are usually going through something really difficult in their lives when they come to me,” Nichols said. “Going to court can be scary and unfamiliar, and it’s my job to help my clients make sense of it all. As a judge, I will never forget what the people who come into my courtroom are going through, and I will do everything I can to make sure they are treated fairly.”

Nichols’ experience as a prosecutor and an attorney in private practice includes more than 40 jury trials in Wyandotte County courts. He was recognized as a top-rated attorney by Super Lawyers Magazine.

He has served as a judge pro tem in Wyandotte County District Court, particularly in the Drug Court program. He also has spoken in the state capitol about legal issues, and is asked to share his knowledge with other lawyers, in person or teaching seminars.

Nichols is a member of the Wyandotte County Juvenile Corrections Advisory Board and the Wyandotte County Bench-Bar Committee, where he works to try to improve the legal system.

Nichols also serves as a guardian ad litem for persons suffering from mental illness, adults who can no longer care for themselves and children who need someone to give them a voice. He has received training in this area as well as training on how to work with patients who have suffered trauma.

“There are a lot of vulnerable people in Wyandotte County and I am always amazed by the number of people in this community who give their time and energy to help those in need,” he said. “There are grandparents, aunts and uncles who don’t think twice about taking on the responsibility of raising a loved one’s child. There are friends and family who take on the incredible task of caring for an adult who because of age, disability or illness are unable to care for themselves. There are a lot of things that I love about my job but working with those folks is the most rewarding thing I do.”

Nichols has not previously run for office. He grew up in Anthony, Kansas, a small town in the south central area of the state, and moved here more than 10 years ago.

Nichols is a graduate of the University of Kansas, where he earned both a bachelor’s degree in religious studies and a law degree. After graduation, he went to work in the Wichita district attorney’s office, and after a few months, moved to the Kansas City area to work with the Wyandotte County district attorney’s office. After three years there, he went into private practice, where he has been since 2011.

He and his wife Casey met in Kansas City, Kansas, and chose to start a family here. They have two daughters, ages 4 and 2, and their oldest daughter attends pre-school at St. Patrick’s Catholic School.

In addition to serving on the Wyandotte County Juvenile Corrections Advisory Board, Nichols also serves on the Board of Directors for Leadership 2000 and previously served as its chairman.