In the hours after the Kansas Supreme Court issued its latest ruling in the Gannon school finance case last Thursday, northeast Johnson County elected officials and education advocates from the Shawnee Mission area were quick to put out public statements communicating their positions on where the state needed to go from here.
From the Shawnee Mission School District? Crickets.
A week after the ruling, there’s been notable silence from the district regarding school finance. The district’s communications office has issued no statement, and on Tuesday Superintendent Jim Hinson rejected an interview request from the Shawnee Mission Post on the subject.
For some district parents, that silence is emblematic of an increasingly concerning lack of transparency. Aimee Patton is a district mother with a student at Westwood View Elementary. She said that given the magnitude of the court decision, which has the potential to remake school funding in Kansas for decades to come, she found the lack of responsiveness surprising and troubling.
“I get a massive amount of communication from the district about small things,” she said. “This is a huge thing. And no one has heard a word.”
Even if the district isn’t prepared to spell out its specific position on a new formula, Patton said, parents deserve some reassurance that the district at least has a seat at the table as legislators work to craft a potential solution.
“I’m surprised there hasn’t been any kind of statement, at least to let us know that they’re involved,” Patton said. “Gannon wasn’t a surprise. We at least knew that there was the potential that we could be facing a funding crisis. As a parent, you’re kind of sitting here wondering if as we inch closer to [the June 30 court deadline for a new formula], are we going to be opening schools next year or not? They could do a lot to reassure us by at least letting us know that they’re closely monitoring the situation, or that they’re in close contact with the people who are making the decisions.”
Hinson was one of just three superintendents in Kansas to lend his district’s support to Gov. Brownback’s call for a “a timeout in the school finance wars” by supporting the controversial block grant funding bill that the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional last summer. The only two other superintendents who gave tempered support to the bill, Blue Valley’s Tom Trigg and Olathe’s Marlin Berry, have since left the state for other jobs.
Hinson’s support for the block grant bill put him at odds with district-area legislators, who suggested at the time that it was unlikely to pass court muster and did nothing to ensure sufficient funding. Hinson steadfastly stuck by his support of the bill even as he had to warn patrons time and again that the district was likely to face allotments under the funding scheme. In a press conference following the court’s ruling in the equity portion of the case last summer, Hinson acknowledged that the legislature had made no visible progress on the crafting of a replacement funding formula, as had been the purported motivation of the two-year block grant window.
For Blake Hodges, the father of two Briarwood Elementary students, the silence following last week’s court ruling has come off as a shirking of responsibility for Hinson.
“I think that you have a funding formula that our superintendent got behind — even though our legislators opposed it — and I think it’s fallen flat on its face,” he said. “I think you’ve got a superintendent who is not owning up to being dead wrong on something. Now it’s all coming back around. By staying silent, I think he’s not owning up to a position that he took. And you wonder who he is working for.”
Hodges notes that he and other parents have been pleased with a number of initiatives Hinson has spearheaded since taking over in 2013, but they also have serious concerns.
“He has done some good things in this district, and I think he’s to be commended for better resource utilization in the face of budget cuts,” he said. “But in this case, he doesn’t seem to want to face a challenge head on. You’re being paid a quarter million dollars a year to make difficult choices and take positions. Do your job.”