Block grant funding for schools passes House while all NEJC representatives vote against it; Shawnee Mission backed bill

Rep. Melissa Rooker was opposed to the block grant funding bill.
Rep. Melissa Rooker was opposed to the block grant funding bill.

All four of the northeast Johnson County representatives in the Kansas House voted against a controversial education funding approach that will scrap the current state funding formula in favor of block grants for the next two years.

The measure narrowly passed the House on a preliminary vote of 64-58 with Representatives Melissa Rooker, Barbara Bollier, Stephanie Clayton and Jarrod Ousley all voting against the bill. That put the four representatives, all strong supporters of education funding, at odds with the official position of the Shawnee Mission School District that was announced Wednesday. Also, coming out for the bill on Wednesday was Blue Valley Superintendent Tom Trigg. Final action is expected today.

Rep. Rooker, who until this year was a member of the House Education Committee, said no other superintendents in the state supported the bill. Rooker said she had been inundated by emails from her legislative district residents. “Not one email asked me to vote for this block grant,” she said. “I honored the voice of the people.”

“I firmly believe that the Kansas School finance formula requires changes,” Clayton said. “That said, this bill is not the way to make these changes. Education funding makes up a little over half of our State General Fund, and you, the Kansas Taxpayers deserve to have a legislature who takes a slow, measured approach to the management of your money.”

“The funding formula is not perfect and absolutely needs amending, but eliminating it entirely is a rash move,” Bollier said. “This legislature has not been presented with any bills to amend the formula for the past few years, so stating that this is our only hope for change is without merit. Since the bill is not an appropriation of funds, we have absolutely no idea what the final moneys appropriated to our schools will be. What we do know if SB 7 passes is that there will be nothing in place to ensure equity; that puts us right back into the courtroom for failing to meet the requirements of the Gannon decision.”

The Shawnee Mission School District declared its support for the block grant program Wednesday, citing its long-standing position asking for a rewrite of the school funding formula. This district has posted a message saying it supports the block grant because it can lead to a new formula.

Rooker said she was concerned that the bill would create an unfair funding situation for students across the state.

“I fundamentally disagree with repeal of the existing formula before we get a replacement plan,” Rooker said. The block grant plan “adds to the budget deficit” and has “no guarantee that the funding will materialize,” she added. “I have a moral obligation to all students in the state.” She said she voted her conscience and her (legislative) district Thursday. “This is the most reckless move I could have contemplated. (It) exacerbates the winners and losers scenario.”

Several groups, including the MainStream Coalition, Game On for Kansas Schools and the Shawnee Mission Area Council PTA and Kansas PTA entered testimony against the bill. However, the SMAC opposition was reportedly withdrawn Thursday after a meeting with the district.

UPDATE: The House passed the bill Friday morning on final action 64-57, again with all four NEJC representatives voting against the bill. The first vote fell short of passage by one vote and representatives sat at their desks for two hours until two representatives from Overland Park arrived to vote for passage.