I've been covering the Lawrence school board for almost two years now. Before that, I spent the better part of the previous 23 years covering government bodies of all other types - from city councils and county commissions to the Kansas Legislature and, occasionally, some congressional activity. I've even sat through meetings of a few rural water districts and watershed management boards.
So I think I'm qualified to say there are two things about covering the local school board that stand out as odd. The first is, in all the meetings I've attended, I have never once witnessed any person - administrator or member of the public - come before that board and tell them bad news. Not once. Not ever. That's just plain weird.
Second, I can count on one hand the number of times any member of the public has come to address them about anything, or to speak out on any topic before the board. And that includes the $92.5 million bond issue they put on the ballot last year.
Well, there's a decent chance that could change Monday, at least if my good friend and colleague, and J-W sports editor, Tom Keegan has anything to say about it. In a column today, he is urging his readers to show up Monday night and speak out on an issue of great concern to many in Lawrence — the firing of a high school basketball coach.
Now, we on the news desk are accustomed to the fact that we work in a sports-crazed town. If a public official were arrested for drunk driving (not saying that would ever happen) on the same day Bill Self signs up the number-one high school recruit in the nation, there is no doubt as to which story would get more web hits.
But there should come a point when sports needs to be put in its proper perspective, and so here's my rant about the obsession with college and high school sports:
Public universities were not built to be taxpayer subsidized (and tax-exempt) farm clubs for the NFL and NBA. And public high schools are not training camps for the NCAA. These are educational institutions whose mission is to mold boys and girls to become responsible, educated young men and women. Sports are a means to that end; they are not an end unto themselves.
The row over the sacking of Lawrence High basketball coach Mike Lewis centers on the fact that he posted a 17-5 record this year, and it has been widely assumed his team will be contenders for the 6A state title next year. Secondary to that is the widely held belief that he's a good guy and a good role model for his students.
What seems to be missing from the conversation is that Lewis is, first and foremost, a teacher. And as such, he should be held to the same educational standards of accountability as all other teachers, whether they teach English, math, science ... or kindergarten.
Every subject that is taught in school, and every extracurricular activity that takes place before or after school, is supposed to have an educational objective. And teachers are held accountable for how well they achieve those objectives.
The objectives of a high school sports program should be to teach students about teamwork, leadership, goal-setting, physical fitness, health, and mental and physical discipline. Students should learn the importance of respecting the rules and respecting (if not always obeying) authority. And, yes, they should have fun.
I have no idea how Coach Lewis measures up when judged by those standards. I only know that those should be the standards by which he or any other high school coach is measured. Not by their win-loss record or the number of trophies they bring home.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.