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The Drama Is Building As The Kansas Legislative Session Winds Down

Jim McLean
KHI News Service

The Kansas Legislative session is winding down but as it does, you can almost feel the tension ratcheting up.

Two senate committees were working on bills bitterly opposed by educators from across the state.

Some got to the Statehouse just as the doors opened to testify against a bill that would force teachers unions to have a recertification election yearly.

By midmorning, teachers, superintendents and the school board association were breathing easier after the bill was passed out of the Commerce Committee with recertification every three years.

But then things went south in the Ways and Means Committee, which started out with Republican Sen. Jeff Melcher from Leawood saying this to a packed hearing room: “Mr. Chairman it probably worked out good that we started a little late. I had heard a lot of complaints that the parking garage was filled with a bunch of new SUVs with school district tags on them so I think they were able to find alternative parking.”

Melcher is one of the leading voices in the Legislature who say school districts spend money unwisely.

The room was filled with those opposed to a bill that would move the dispersing of school funding from the independent Kansas State Department of Education to the Department of Administration, controlled by the governor.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, a conservative Republican from Andover, was a little late for the 10:30 a.m. start time.

But he was riled up.

“For those who have political purposes and see value in a fight versus a discussion of the truth, I think this conversation has become somewhat tainted.”

Masterson claimed he has received emails that were angry and vile and that he’s read totally false information about the bill on social media.

Then he stunned the crowd with some drama you rarely see in the Kansas capitol.

“Due to this misinformation and falsehood I’ve found this debate to be escalated to the point of irrational emotion and see no point in wasting both the time of the conferees or the committee," Masterson announced.

So Masterson killed the bill, at least for now.

He says moving the money would result in more transparency, and that’s all he wanted.

Educators disagree.

“We also think it’s more transparent when you have a 10 member board of education that’s elected that oversees those funds that that’s really responsive to the people,” says Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson, who has only been on the job since July.

Also there to oppose the measure was Mark Tallman from the Kansas Association of School Boards, who rarely sees a day when he’s not trying to beat back some bill educators oppose. “I don’t want to characterize people as attacking education. I think there’s room for differences of opinion but in several of these bills we respectfully disagree.”

Sen. Laura Kelly, the ranking Democrat on the committee, not only opposed the legislation but was upset by the tone. “I don’t appreciate the way it was done, placing blame on people who have every right to oppose the bill, speaking their piece. I think it should have been handled with a little more dignity," she said. 

But if dignity has gone by the wayside at this stage of the Legislative session, there’s not much chance of it getting much better.

Soon lawmakers will be grappling with two different plans aimed at fixing the equity part of school finance in a way that satisfies the state Supreme Court.

One plan moves money from rich districts to poor districts and another actually adds $36 million to the system.

It could be a raucous race to the finish line for Kansas lawmakers.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.

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