County commissioners delay approval of legislative priorities statement; Kelly urges addition regarding school surveys

photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World

Mallory Lutz, left, replies to a question from Douglas County Commissioner Karen Willey on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023 at the Douglas County Courthouse. Lutz is an associate with Little Government Relations.

Medicaid expansion, criminal justice reform, and a repeal of a Kansas law defining what bathrooms transgender individuals can use are among a host of items that Douglas County leaders have tentatively identified as items they hope state legislators tackle in 2024.

But county commissioners at Wednesday’s meeting didn’t approve the county’s annual legislative priorities statement because Commission Chair Patrick Kelly thinks there is at least one item missing.

Kelly turned his focus to a statute he dubbed as the “Student Survey Bill.” Kelly — who is employed by Lawrence Public Schools as its chief academic officer — said legislators need to back away from past changes that require school districts to receive parental notification for many of the surveys they administer to students.

In the 2022 session, the legislature passed legislation that places limits on how school districts can conduct surveys “administered during the school day that contains questions about the personal and private attitudes, values, beliefs, or practices of the student or any of the student’s family, friends, or peers.” Among the requirements is that parents must provide written permission for their students to participate in each and every survey. Previously districts could automatically opt students into such surveys, unless parents specifically opted them out. Now, the reverse is true — students are opted out of such surveys, unless parents opt their students in.

Kelly said the issue is one the county should be concerned with because the legislation limits school districts’ ability to apply for specific grants that tie-in with county government initiatives.

“Because we are unable to survey our students about their beliefs and behaviors, it becomes very difficult for us to apply for grants and funding to support prevention programs,” he said. “That’s something that is part of our Douglas County behavioral health plan and that we really need to focus on. It’s limiting schools’ abilities to do their jobs — and in an attached way, impeding our communities’ ability to be good partners with our schools.”

Kelly and fellow commissioner Karen Willey tabled approval of the county’s annual legislative priorities statement, which would be circulated among Kansas legislators in the leadup to the upcoming legislative session that begins in January. Kelly said that he would like to see language regarding the “Student Survey Bill” added to the county’s legislative priorities list. Kelly and Willey also said that they wanted Commissioner Shannon Reid, who was absent for Wednesday’s business meeting, to take part in the discussion.

In other business, commissioners:

• Heard a presentation detailing the need for the Treatment and Recovery Center of Douglas County to form a 10 to 15 member advisory group. After much discussion about the precise language of the motion, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said that “I think we can have consensus to move forward” with “Directing staff to proceed with forming the Treatment and Recovery Center advisory group.”

• Heard a presentation from the county’s Zoning and Codes planning staffs that shed light on the statuses of conditional use permits in Douglas County. Information presented by Leo Ruhnke, an administrative zoning specialist, showed that of 153 active “or otherwise still valid” conditional use permits, around 29 were “either in violation or operating past the expiration date.” For another 26, “staff were unable to find conditions, review dates, and other relevant details.” Staff, according to Ruhnke plan to continue their research of CUPs.

• Approved, in the consent agenda, the acceptance of two grant awards for Douglas County and City of Lawrence public safety personnel. The commission’s approval authorizes the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office to accept funding for the 2021 and 2022 Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program in the total amount of $61,048, an amount that is divided equally between Douglas County and the City of Lawrence. The grant funding is designed to assist the Sheriff’s Office and Lawrence Police Department to collaborate on public safety needs, including the acquisition, storage, and analysis of Digital Multimedia Evidence.

• Heard a work session presentation from the county’s “Tax Team” that provided an overview of currently available tax incentive programs administered by the county’s “Tax Team” and the impacts of those programs locally. Commissioners were told that there are 96 Neighborhood Revitalization Area (NRA) properties, five Tax Increment Finance (TIF) districts, three Transportation Development Districts (TDD), one Rural Housing Incentive District (RHID) and 13 Industrial Revenue Bonds. Commissioners previously had asked for more information about the status of tax incentives being used in the county for economic development purposes.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.