Topeka In an effort to change the debate over school funding and education policy, Gov. Sam Brownback and a group of rural Republican state senators are calling on Democrat Paul Davis to remove his appointee to a task force on school efficiency.
John Vratil, a moderate Republican from Leawood and a former vice president of the Kansas Senate, was appointed to the K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission by Rep. Paul Davis, the House Democratic leader who is now challenging Brownback for re-election.
Brownback and the senators, led by Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, argue that Vratil spoke in favor of forced consolidation of rural schools in a 2011 interview with the Topeka Capital-Journal.
"Calling for the forced consolidation of rural schools is essentially calling for the death of numerous rural communities," Bruce said.
Throughout his first term in office, Brownback has been harshly criticized by education groups for cuts in base state aid for public schools — cuts that the Davis campaign has called the largest in state history.
Brownback has said those cuts were the result of the federal government phasing out stimulus aid to states at the end of the Great Recession. But his critics say the state could have replaced that money as revenues to the state recovered, but that Brownback chose instead to enact large tax cuts, which he hoped would stimulate the Kansas economy even more.
The Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, has endorsed Davis in the race. They also criticize Brownback for signing a school finance bill this year that stripped teachers of tenure rights, reduced funding that targeted low-income, at-risk students, and provided tax credits for corporate contributions to scholarship funds for private and parochial schools.
That was the same bill that established the K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission.
But in recent weeks, Brownback has tried to change the conversation about education by talking about how much he admires teachers while noting that one of his daughters is now a teacher.
And during the Kansas State Fair debate on Saturday, Brownback said he opposes forced consolidation of rural schools while pointing out that Davis had appointed Vratil to the K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission.
His campaign also distributed fliers to the audience claiming that forced consolidation would be part of the "Davis-Vratil Education Agenda."
In 2011, Vratil was vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee as well as vice-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, which deals with budgets.
The Capital-Journal article, published July 28 that year, focused on the struggles of rural school districts in sparsely populated western Kansas and how many of them had already been forced to consolidate because of budget issues.
Vratil was cited as saying that in spite of more budget cuts coming, Johnson County schools would be able to sustain themselves for a number of years. But he said rural schools should need to face the reality that they might be forced to consolidate and that taxpayers in Johnson County were unhappy about paying taxes to prop up those schools.
"Rural school districts will be starved out of existence," Vratil was quoted as saying. "And the sooner they realize that, the better off they will be."
Vratil did not respond to a request for comment about that quote.
In the flier, however, the Brownback campaign referred only to the quote and did not reference the broader context of declining populations in western Kansas and cuts being made by the Brownback administration at that time in education spending.
"The biggest threat to schools across the state is four more years of Sam Brownback's failed experiment," Davis' campaign spokesman Chris Pumpelly said. "Paul Davis opposes school consolidation as strongly as he opposes Sam Brownback's massive cuts to education, and Sam Brownback and his allies know it."