Real dialogue. Real leadership.

Gary Plummer is the President & CEO of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce

Gary Plummer is the President & CEO of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce

The letter below was published in today’s Wichita Eagle.

A constitutional crisis is upon us. The Kansas Supreme Court has threatened to close schools on July 1 if the legislature fails to equalize funding disparities between school districts.

This is just yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of school finance battles between the Court and Legislature. However, the stakes are much higher this time around and the uncertainty is impacting more than parents, teachers and school children. Business leaders are reporting difficulty in recruiting employees and top-level managers due to the negative news coverage.

This must stop now. It’s time for real dialogue and real leadership.

A good number of legislative leaders are working hard towards a resolution that will keep schools open. However, some seem almost singularly focused on criticizing the Court.  Schools, understandably, are working to protect their own self-interests. The Court has a difficult job, but a job to do nonetheless. Like it or not, they are the final authority on the constitutionality of school finance law. However, threatening to close schools is unwise and counterproductive.

Wealthier school districts and their communities are calling for funding plans with “hold harmless” provisions. Translated this means they don’t want any money taken from their districts and shared with the state’s poorer districts. Unfortunately, this flies directly counter to the definition of equalization.

In Wichita, U.S.D. 259 (the state’s largest school district) educates 2,000 homeless school children per year. Nearly 78% of the student body is considered at risk and qualifies for free or reduced lunches. A sizable number of students consider English as their second language with students speaking over 100 different languages as their primary language. Countless studies have proven that educating students from poorer urban settings costs more than educating students from affluent areas. It is critical that these students are given the same opportunities for success as children in wealthy school districts. Kansas cannot and should not be known as a state where a child’s educational success is decided by their zip code.

There is plenty of blame to go around. We all need to shoulder our fair share, including the Wichita Chamber. We’ve had three years to address this issue, provide leadership and avoid the crisis we now face. Pointing fingers and playing the blame game doesn’t move us forward. At best, it paralyzes us in the current dilemma. At worst, it actually moves us backwards. Let’s at least develop a short-term solution and pledge to continue to work together on a sustainable resolution.

It’s time to separate from our silos, depart from our protected turf and come together in the best interests of our children, our communities and the future of our great state.

Kansas Legislature Begins 2014 Session Today

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The 2014 Kansas Legislature convenes this afternoon and the Chamber will once again be advocating for a better business environment that promotes investment, innovation, and job creation. Dan Voorhis of The Wichita Eagle sat down with the Chamber’s Vice President of Government Relations, Barby Jobe, and Director of Government Relations, Jason Watkins (pictured), last week to review the Chamber’s successes from the 2013 session. His article was published January 8 and included a review of what to expect in the 2014 session. The Chamber’s website has more detailed information about the 2013 Legislative wins and the 2014 Legislative Agenda.

Jason Watkins will once again be publishing a weekly recap of legislative activities. These electronic updates are posted on the Chamber’s website or Chamber members can sign up to receive them via email every Friday afternoon by contacting Cindy Reves at the Information Desk.

The Chamber is offering two opportunities for members to meet and network with elected officials during the first half of the year. Check the Chamber website later this week for more information about these events:

  • February 11: Topeka Legislative Reception  
  • June 9-11: 2014 Washington Fly-In

The Wichita Eagle has also published a helpful guide with information about how to track legislation, lobby a legislator, view campaign contributions, and tour the Capitol. For more information about the Chamber’s government relations goals and roles, you can review the Legislative brochure that was published last year.