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Kansas lawmakers respond to Wichita's emotional BOE budget cuts meeting

Published: May. 19, 2016 at 6:55 PM CDT
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As Wichita School Board members made $18 million in cuts, with another $5 million still to come, there were tears. And many called out state law makers saying lawmakers slam doors in educators' faces when they try to talk about school budgets and that lawmakers are out to kill public education in Kansas.

There were no current lawmakers at Wednesday's board meeting. So Eyewitness News took the meeting to them. We put together a montage of some of the things we saw and heard at the board meeting and contacted all of Wichita's lawmakers asking them to come watch it. Then we talked.

"I'm sorry. Oh my," Betty Arnold said, barely able to control the tears as she tried to speak to Eyewitness News after the meeting.

"This hurts," said board member Mike Rodee.

It's a pain state lawmakers say they understand.

"I feel their pain," said Rep. Roderick Houston, (D) Wichita, in a very quiet voice after watching our video.

But as they watched our video some lawmakers say it's just part of the job the school board members were elected to do.

"I'm not sure how we can just open a checkbook and supply funds for whatever they feel like they want," said Rep. Gene Suellentrop, (R) Wichita. Pointing to an April 2016 Kansas Association of School Boards report on school finances he added, "Every year we hit new levels of funding, increased levels of funding. We have not reduced K-12 levels of funding in the last five years. We have reached new levels each year. And again we are now over $4 billion of funding for K-12 in the state of Kansas."

They don't think the board has considered all its options.

"The school district has rainy day funds. I didn't hear them say they're going to tap into those," said Sen. Michael O'Donnell, (R) Wichita. "I didn't hear them say they're going to tap into administration."

"That sounds like typical excuses of somebody who's tied and wed to a failed policy," said Rep. Jim Ward, (D) Wichita and former Wichita school board member. "Instead of stepping up and saying it is clear that doesn't work."

Others say there's a reason for that.

"Schools for the longest have had those rainy day funds because the state has been inconsistent sometimes with making their payments on time," said Rep. Gail Finney, (D) Wichita. "So they need those payments just to make the payroll sometimes."

And for some the video aroused anger, either against the board or against fellow lawmakers.

"I don't appreciate those saying that we're not fighting for schools, that we're fighting to close schools. That's factually incorrect," said Rep. John Whitmer, (R) Wichita. "In particular, this year, the budget bill that we passed, we required... we told the governor, 'You cannot cut K-12 education!'"

"The members of the Kansas legislature and the governor ought to be run out of town on a rail," said Rep. John Carmichael, (D) Wichita. "And I'm afraid that the pain has only begun."

Several lawmakers are already planning to be back in Topeka within the next month talking about school funding. They tell Eyewitness News they fully expect the Kansas Supreme Court to rule against the state once again in the school funding lawsuit.

The Wichita School Board's next step is to wait for the results of the teacher union vote on Monday, May 23rd, on whether to accept a shorter school year to save money.