At SuperChat, Hinson stays on sidelines as lieutenant delivers defense of Shawnee Mission position in school funding debate

Rick Atha, Shawnee Mission’s assistant superintendent for instructional support, delivered a summary of the district's position on school finance Thursday.
Rick Atha, Shawnee Mission’s assistant superintendent for instructional support, delivered a summary of the district’s position on school finance Thursday.

As the school finance ideas floated by Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson this month have put him increasingly at odds with key local lawmakers and statewide groups, one of his top lieutenants on Thursday delivered a defense of the district’s position in the school funding debate at a public presentation.

Though the SuperChat event hosted at Westridge Middle School had been billed by the organizing PTA groups as “an informal Q&A with SMSD Superintendent, Dr. Jim Hinson,” Hinson spoke only very briefly at the beginning of the session to introduce Christy Ziegler, the district’s assistant superintendent of innovation. Ziegler gave an formal presentation on the district’s growing signature programs, which provide students advanced training in professional fields like biotechnology or law enforcement.

Hinson remained in the room after the session had concluded and spoke with some of approximately 50 attendees, but at no point did he stand for questions and answers with the audience as a whole, as has been the common format at SuperChats since their inception.

Instead, the bulk of the evening was devoted to a presentation delivered by Rick Atha, the former Garden City superintendent who left that position in 2015 to become Shawnee Mission’s assistant superintendent for instructional support. Atha focused on the conflicting perspectives on the 1992 school finance formula of rural, less affluent communities like Garden City compared to suburban, affluent communities like Shawnee Mission. Atha argued that districts in western Kansas like Garden City have embraced the state school funding approach that had been in place since 1992 because they reaped millions in additional support from the state.

“Why do some districts support the old formula while others do not? I think that’s a reasonable question,” Atha said. “[Garden City] stepped up and they valued the old formula. Why? Because they benefitted from it. Significantly.”

Of note, Atha said, Garden City qualified for enhanced per-pupil funding from the state in 12 of the 14 weighting categories in the formula (before that formula was replaced by the unconstitutional block grant bill in 2015). What’s more, because of the equalization provisions in the old formula, Garden City qualified for millions of dollars in state financing for facilities.

Atha said Shawnee Mission had consistently opposed the 1992 funding approach, which was widely rejected by Johnson County legislators at the time of its passage, because it stripped the district of some of its authority to raise funds for schools from district taxpayers.

“Sometimes when I read the newspaper I think Dr. Hinson is the only one against the old formula,” Atha said. “Well, that’s not true. Shawnee Mission has been opposed to the old formula since its inception in 1992. Every school board – school boards change — every school board has been opposed to the old formula. Every superintendent has been opposed to the old formula.”

Hinson and attorney Fred Logan stressed that point as well in a media availability in mid-March, saying that local control had been key to Shawnee Mission’s ability to fund excellent programs. Atha said the district simply wanted to put the decision about how much money Shawnee Mission schools needed “in your hands.”

“For you to determine when enough was enough,” he said. “We want to provide our kids with more than a sufficient, adequate education. We want to provide them with an excellent education. Those signature programs that Dr. Ziegler outlined, those are expensive programs. Sometimes it costs to reach excellence. We want to hire excellent teachers. We want to hire excellent administrators. We want the very best people facing our kids. This community has expected that.”

But Atha spent little time discussing the realities of the Supreme Court’s school finance rulings, which time and again have directed the legislature to ensure a relatively level playing field, where every student in the state has access to a public school system that provides a minimum level of services. At one point, Atha presented a chart showing per-pupil expenditures at a variety of districts across the state, noting that Shawnee Mission ranked among the lowest along with Johnson County peers like Blue Valley and Olathe.

Shawnee Mission Area Council PTA legislative co-chair Mary Sinclair, who holds a PhD in special education research, pressed Atha on whether the figures he presented fully captured the realities of educating at-risk, English language learner and other special categories of students.

“Costs related to poverty, costs related to the proportion of kids speaking a second language, costs associated with transportation — does that adjust for those?” she asked.

Atha acknowledged that the figures he presented were the raw per-pupil spending numbers, and did not account for the proportion of special needs or other weighted categories that make up a district’s student population.