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Lawrence board opposes changing election cycles

Lawrence school board members indicated Monday night they plan to submit a joint written statement to a legislative committee opposing a bill that would change the election cycle for municipal elections.

Board member Shannon Kimball testified against House Bill 2227 Monday during a hearing before the House Elections Committee. It would change the date of city and school district elections from April of odd-numbered years to November of odd-numbered years.

It would also change the terms of office for school board members so that new terms would begin on Jan. 1 following an election. Under current law, board members' terms begin on July 1 following an election.

The bill was first introduced in the 2013 session. At that time, Kimball said, it also called for making city and school elections partisan races, although that provision has been deleted this year.

Before the start of the session, the school board adopted a legislative agenda that calls for continuation of non-partisan elections in the spring.

Board president Rick Ingram said he's concerned the language calling for partisan elections could be added back to the bill at any time.

"These things get added at the last minute," Ingram said. "I don't know many people who think we have too little partisanship in government."

Kimball said supporters of the bill hope it will increase voter turnout, which is typically very low in spring elections.

In last spring's elections, according to Douglas County voting records, only 16.58 percent of registered voters cast ballots in local city and school district elections, including the $92.5 million bond election in the Lawrence district.

But Kimball said passage of the bill would disrupt the work of school boards throughout the state because it would mean new terms would begin in the middle of an academic year - and in the middle of a budget year. They would also begin at about the same time most boards begin their superintendent evaluations and contract negotiations with teachers.

Although the committee hearing was held Monday, Kimball said the committee would accept written comments on the bill through the end of the business day Wednesday.

Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, who chairs the Elections Committee, has not yet announced when the panel might vote to advance the bill to the full House.

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School bond issues have been popular in recent Kansas elections

Lawrence wasn't the only school district in Kansas to pass a bond issue Tuesday night, and the 72 percent margin by which it passed wasn't the widest by any means. In fact, school bond elections appear to have been popular with voters in the last several months.

According to a story posted by the Salina Journal, bond proposals also passed this week in the McPherson and Goessel school districts by wider margins than the one seen in Lawrence.

In the McPherson district, which has about 2,300 full-time-equivalent students, voters approved $13.25 million in new bonds by a margin of 81 percent to 19 percent.

And in the tiny Goessel district, with about 257 FTE students, a $3.3 million bond proposal passed with 92 percent of the vote (337 to 29).

But at least one bond proposal did fail narrowly Tuesday night. In the Ellsworth school district, voters rejected a $4.8 million proposal, 47 percent to 53 percent.

A few theories immediately pop to mind that might explain this. One is that spring municipal elections produce extremely low turnout, so the returns only show the sentiments of the most ardent, committed voters. It may be easier to get people to turn out in droves to vote for something rather than against it.

Another is that school boards include some politically savvy people who only put a bond proposal on the ballot when they are fairly confident it has public support.

But another theory — and one that seemed to be popular among the Yes for Lawrence crowd Tuesday night — is that Kansas voters are much more willing than their elected representatives in Topeka are to invest tax dollars in public schools.

That was the message from Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, and co-chair of Yes for Lawrence, when he gave an impromptu victory speech at an election watch party downtown Tuesday night.

"Sandy and I have had so much fun being involved in this," Davis said, referring to the committee's other co-chair, Republican Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger of Lawrence. "We are dealing with that realm of politics over in Topeka, which is not always uplifting."

It's also interesting to note that just over a year ago, in January 2012, voters in two Johnson County school districts, Blue Valley and Gardner Edgerton, approved large local bond issues.

In Blue Valley — a rapidly growing district where the school board likes to keep bonding authority in the bank, on the assumption they're going to need it within the next 10 years or so for another new building — voters passed a $271 million bond issue with 62 percent of the vote.

And in Gardner Edgerton, a much smaller district with about 5,000 students, voters OK'd a $72.8 million bond issue with 54 percent of the vote.

Those are noteworthy because those districts also are home to some of the most conservative lawmakers in the Kansas Legislature.

Blue Valley's legislative delegation includes House Speaker Ray Merrick, as well as Reps. Scott Schwab and Marvin Kleeb, among others.

Schwab is a sponsor of a bill mandating certain social studies lessons during Celebrate Freedom Week. Kleeb is the House Commerce Committee chairman who recently agreed to hold off on a bill limiting collective bargaining rights for teachers.

Gardner Edgerton's delegation, meanwhile, includes Sen. Julia Lynn, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee which also heard a number of bills this year targeting teachers' unions.

So far, Kansas lawmakers are not talking about making any further cuts to K-12 funding. But neither are they talking much about complying with a district court order in Gannon vs. Kansas to restore funding back to levels agreed to in the Kansas Supreme Court's 2006 Montoy school finance decision, at least not while the Gannon case is still on appeal before the Court.

Still, according to the Salina Journal, concern about the possibility of future cuts in state funding for education generally was a motivation for districts in north-central Kansas to seek bonds that would put more money into their own local schools.

All of which may reinforce the theory that the voters who turn out for off-cycle school bond elections are a different crowd of people from the ones who turn out for legislative elections in November.

Or it could point to another truism about American politics. Like the voters who say they distrust Congress but keep re-electing their own congressman, maybe the lesson here is that Kansas voters strongly support their own school districts, but distrust everyone else's.

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Public must wait for finance reports in school elections

Although candidates and political action committees active in the Lawrence city commission races have filed campaign finance statements, the public will have to wait until December to learn who is contributing to school board candidates and a campaign promoting the district's $92.5 million bond proposal.

Benjamin Lampe, deputy of elections in the Douglas County Clerk's office, said that's because Kansas statutes treat the two kinds of elections differently.

The Kansas Campaign Finance Act only applies to elections for state offices, cities of the first class and school school districts with more than 35,000 students - which is to say, the Wichita school district. That law requires filing periodic reports leading up to an election and 30 days after the election.

But campaigns for board seats and ballot initiatives involving all other school districts fall under a different statute, K.S.A. 25-901, which only requires them to file an annual report on or before Dec. 31 each year.

Furthermore, Lampe said, three of the four candidates running for the school board this year - Kristie Adair, Bob Byers and Vanessa Sanburn - have already filed notices that they'll be exempt from having to file reports because they intend to raise and spend less than $500 on their campaigns. That means Adina Morse is the only candidate who will have to file a year-end report.

Sanburn also is working actively with Yes for Lawrence, which stated publicly that it raised about $600 on the first day the committee organized. Other committee members said the group hopes to raise and spend about $15,000 in support of the $92.5 million bond proposal.

Yes for Lawrence is co-chaired by Rep. Paul Davis, the Kansas House Democratic leader, and Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, a Republican. The committee recently began running a TV commercial supporting the bond proposal.

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