Silver Lake Kansas higher education chiefs, including Kansas University Chancellor Robert Hemenway, entertained elementary school students Wednesday with stories and visits from the schools' mascots.
But their real audience was about 15 miles east in the Statehouse where legislators are considering budget cuts in the face of an estimated $426 million revenue shortfall.
"It's pre-school to graduate school," Hemenway said during a news conference at Silver Lake Elementary. "We're all in the same business."
Higher education and public schools together cost about $3 billion out of a $4.5 billion state budget, but in past years the two groups have generally pursued their goals separately before the Legislature.
This year is different as education officials fight for tax increases to help fix the budget.
Hemenway said KU needs about $15.4 million more just to "stand still" and that budget proposals considered so far would result in layoffs, crowded classes and shutting down some academic programs and basic student services.
Most higher education officials have given up on getting some $46 million during the next fiscal year, which had been promised earlier as part of higher education reform legislation.
Because of the serious shortfall, the university chiefs said they visited Silver Lake to show a unified front with public school officials.
"When we look at these young people, I think we need to re-evaluate what's important to the state of Kansas," said Tom Bryant, president of Pittsburg State University.
Steve Pegram, superintendent of the Silver Lake school district, said he welcomed the support from higher education officials.
"We're all part of it together," he said. The school's principal, Bill Ross, agreed, urging people to contact their legislators to support extra funding for education.
Ed Hammond, president of Fort Hays State University, said he was confident Kansans would tell their representatives that "they need to stand up to the task."
State legislators say they are getting requests for extra funding from all sides.
Rep. Kenny Wilk, R-Lansing and chairman of the House budget-writing committee, said every agency and function of state government was lobbying hard for more dollars.
"They are all aggressively working to make their budgets," he said.
Rep. Clark Shultz, R-Lindsborg, chairman of the education subcommittee, said members are "genuinely concerned" about the budget but at this point there's not a lot they can promise.
"We have a huge problem," he said.
And Shultz said he didn't think higher education's funding chances would increase if they aligned themselves more closely with public schools.
"They (the universities) are going to be listened to very well," regardless whether they fight alone or beside public schools, he said.
But a recent poll by KU's Policy Research Institute showed more Kansans supported increasing public school funding Â 59.3 percent Â than increasing funding for higher education Â 38.1 percent.
Hemenway denied higher education officials were trying to grab the coattails of public school support.
"You can't divide education. It's one system. Whatever helps education at one level, helps the other," he said.