Intrigue builds in Topeka



February 5, 2018 - 12:00 AM

Two weeks ago a startling report called into question school transportation funding under direction of Dale Dennis, the state’s conceded authority on school finance.
A letter to the Kansas Department of Education from Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman and Senate President Susan Wagle prompted a firestorm on both sides of the aisle: ultra-conservatives eager to find a target for the funding woes of state education and moderates, alarmed that the brouhaha will take funding education off track.
Rep. Kent Thompson, home for the weekend, said he thought targeting Dennis, deputy director of education, was a strategy by ultra-conservatives that may prove far-reaching.
The Legislature is under orders from the Kansas Supreme Court to increase state aid funding for public education to ensure it is adequate and equitable. The deadline given legislators is April 30.
The sudden revelation that Dennis, who at age 80 has been closely associated with all aspects of school finance for better than four decades, would be thusly indicted left Thompson baffled. Why, he wondered, did legislative leaders suddenly uncover flaws in funding that apparently have recurred each year since the early 1990s, when the state took responsibility for funding general expenditures of school districts, as well as substantial parts of other budget line items – local option budgets and capital outlay funds.
The answer may be to discredit information that had a role in the justices’ decision.
ON THE DARK SIDE, Thompson speculates this attack on the Department of Education may be a ruse to aid Secretary of State Kris Kobach in his plan to seek the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Kobach feasts on controversy and would welcome one that taints school revenue distribution. So would his ultra-conservative base.
Wagle, by the way, has been mentioned as a favorite to run with Kobach as his lieutenant governor.
The expectation is Kobach will go to the primary election in August with a reasonably firm grip on the deeply conservative element of GOP voters, approaching 35 percent. If the Republican field swells to as many candidates as seems likely, 35 percent likely would give Kobach a plurality, and the nomination. Having an issue of magnitude, such as school finance questions, would be nice to have tucked away in his hip pocket.
Jeff Colyer, now settled behind the governor’s desk with Sam Brownback’s recent appointment to a religious ambassadorship, appeals to the same Republican faction as Kobach, but is at disadvantage by not having had the bully pulpit until now.
Kobach has made the most of his moments in the limelight by claiming voter improprieties – in Kansas and on behalf of President Trump — and as a highly visible foe of illegal immigration.
Where the Dennis puzzle will trend in the gubernatorial contest is yet to be defined, but it may be a highly charged aside.
The Topeka Capital-Journal reported last week “… some lawmakers want to know whether they can trust the state’s long-time school finance chief as they move forward in a high-stakes lawsuit over education funding …,” which resulted in the Supreme Court’s order for substantially more state aid.
The Capital-Journal further reported some lawmakers think the questions centered on Dennis’ execution of transportation funding, “… are an effort to cast doubt on the reliability of education data that lawmakers receive.”
“In my experience, Dale Dennis has been a dedicated employee and a true public servant to those in the education community,” Thompson said. “All Kansas has benefited from his knowledge and expertise when it comes to education funding.”
He supports an audit, which most likely is forthcoming, and if mistakes surface, “we should fix them.”
Meanwhile, he did not approve of the flash-point nature of how the Dennis issue surfaced.
Thompson said he fully supported hiring an attorney as the House moves forward in dealing with the Supreme Court order.
The House also has contacted two third-party groups to make yet another study of revenue needs of Kansas districts.
Augenblick & Myers, a Denver firm, studied Kansas school finance nearly 20 years ago, on behalf of the Legislature, with what the firm reported central to the first major lawsuit that recast, through a court decision, school finance. The second lawsuit following short-lived block-grant funding, a bit of chicanery on Brownback’s part to pare direct funding to classrooms, concluded with the latest court order.
Legislators are uncertain of what level of increased funding the court will accept, but the general consideration is about $600 million.

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