Brought together by concern over students’ mental health, leaders of 6 JoCo districts working on joint legislative platform

Board of Education President Brad Stratton.

As Johnson County communities faced the continued loss of youth to suicide earlier this year, the superintendents of the county’s six public school districts got together on an initiative designed to promote awareness and prevention.

Now, the boards of those six districts are teaming up in hopes of sending a message to the state legislature.

Representatives of all six Johnson County school districts met to discuss a joint legislative platform over the weekend. Photo via Twitter.

Superintendents and board members from the Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, Olathe, Spring Hill, DeSoto and Gardner-Edgerton districts met for approximately an hour and a half on Sunday during the annual Kansas Association of School Boards conference, which was held in Overland Park, for a preliminary discussion on joint legislative positions.

It’s the first time the board of the districts have met to collaborate on such an initiative.

Shawnee Mission School Board President Brad Stratton said mental health and suicide prevention issues were the catalyst for bringing the Johnson County education leaders together, but that they were looking at other issues where they could stand together as well.

“This was the by-product of our superintendents already having been talking about those key issues of mental health and suicide awareness, and we as board leaders realizing that we need to be proactive in working with the legislature to address them,” Stratton said. “But there is a list of items that we’re discussing in addition to those. School finance is right up there as well.”

The meeting Sunday was intended to kick off the creation of a joint statement or legislative platform for all six districts to get behind and communicate to elected officials. Whatever form the joint legislative positions take, they will come in addition to the districts’ own legislative platforms as well as KASB’s legislative platform.

“I anticipate that whatever comes out of this will be fairly succinct,” Stratton said. “Each district will still have its own comprehensive platform. I’m betting we’ll be looking at less than six items on the joint initiative.”

A possible foundation for continued collaboration in the years to come

Though it’s just a single meeting at this point, some local leaders are hoping Saturday’s roundtable could set the stage for more close collaboration between the Johnson County districts on legislative priorities in the coming years.

For years, Wichita area institutions — from school districts to the chambers of commerce — have managed to hang closely together on priority issues for their communities. Johnson County institutions, on the other hand, have been less successful at presenting a united front in lobbying for shared legislative goals.

For example, Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley stood out among their peer districts in supporting the 2015 block grant approach to school funding that was opposed by many education advocates. (Five school districts as well as nine local chambers of commerce did team up to lobby for a short-term school funding plan in the summer of 2016, however).

Stratton said he is hopeful that the work started over the weekend will lead to more regular meetings between the six districts.

“While each of the Johnson County school districts have their own legislative platforms from which to advocate, there is an opportunity to highlight several key priorities this legislative session using the collective voice of all Johnson County school districts,” Stratton said.

Cindy Bowling, who is the president of the Blue Valley Board of Education, echoed those sentiments.

“All six Johnson County school districts speaking as one voice during the 2019 legislative session is good for students, parents, businesses and communities of Johnson County,” Bowling said. “Following the recent Kansas Association of School Boards annual convention, the districts were able to articulate common goals for several items. We are excited about the influence we can have as a united Johnson County school coalition and know that this endeavor is in the best interest of nearly 100,000 Johnson County public school students.”

As for the work on mental health and suicide issues, the steps to combine resources have been very well received by the local community. The six superintendents are set to receive the Overland Park Award from the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce at the group’s annual meeting luncheon on Wednesday.