‘Political agenda.’ Kansas group of superintendents criticized for lobbying legislators independent of their boards

(The Sentinel) – A decision to leave local school board members off an invitation list for Leavenworth County superintendents to lobby state legislators was denounced by a pair not invited and a…

(The Sentinel) – A decision to leave local school board members off an invitation list for Leavenworth County superintendents to lobby state legislators was denounced by a pair not invited and a state school board member on the panel.

Leavenworth County superintendents meet with area legislators

USD 453 Superintendent Dr. Kellen Adams organized the meeting to provide school district leaders and legislators an opportunity to discuss current district issues and legislative priorities for the upcoming session in Topeka. Responding to a question, Dr. Adams defended the guest list by saying it was customary for superintendents and legislators to get together for a give-and-take on issues, and there was no intention to ignore local board members. But State School Board Member Danny Zeck took issue with the exclusion of the local members:

“I’m troubled that your school boards didn’t vote on approving the superintendents attending this meeting. School boards are elected by their constituents and have a legal obligation to set policy, and legislative priorities, for you to follow. I look forward to board members’ input; directly by attending or indirectly by approving their superintendents’ appearance, at our next meeting with legislators. These conversations should be transparent.”

USD 453 Board Member Vanessa Reid said she asked Dr. Adams if she could attend and was told the gathering would “operate without an audience.” She ridiculed the decision to not include local members in the event billed as “Leavenworth County Schools Outreach” and the development of county-wide “Legislative Priorities”:

“At no time did the board vote on the ‘priorities’. It is puzzling to me how there can be a “Leavenworth County Schools Outreach” without any local board members involved, nor parents, nor students. Why would The State Board of Education be invited but no local board members who sit on each city’s local school boards? The invitation stated, ‘On behalf of the Superintendents from Leavenworth County School Districts’ and if it is true that this was an honest collaboration between the superintendents of Leavenworth County School Districts then surely each of the superintendents involved were taking their board priorities and collaborating those together to come up with this agenda… right?  Surely only the Leavenworth Board of Education had not discussed these goals nor created them or voted on them.  It definitely makes me wonder if no school board in Leavenworth County met in regard to these agenda items.  In which case this situation highlights what I’ve seen over and over again.  One of the large problems in public education is that some superintendents run the school districts in lieu of their boards.

“If the public is given the opportunity to review the Legislative Priorities 2023 as supposed by our entire counties’ superintendents, they will be able to see how similarly it reflects the KASB’s (Kansas Association of School Boards) 2024 legislative agenda.  Hopefully, that is just a coincidence also.”

Also on the panel, aside from Adams and Zeck, were the superintendents of  Ft. Leavenworth, Tonganoxie, Lansing, and Easton, as well as State Representatives Tim Johnson and Dave Buehler and State Senator Jeff Pittman.

Along with fellow Member Carla Wiegers, Lansing Board Member Amy Cawvey attended the meeting as an audience member. She blasted the lack of transparency at the conference:

 “I was shocked when I learned that a meeting was going to occur between superintendents of Leavenworth County, who were representing their districts, and legislators, yet elected board members from those districts were purposely not included. Board members are elected by their constituents to be their voice and to be their representatives. To have a meeting where superintendents want to advocate, or as I see lobby for or against certain legislation without elected board member representation, is appalling.

“Every voter should be concerned this meeting occurred behind closed doors. This also occurred without each individual school board voting and approving their superintendent to attend.  I, as all other board members in Leavenworth County, was not invited, but when I learned of the meeting fellow board member Carla Weigers, and I decided to attend. We observed the meeting and although State Senator Pittman and Superintendent Adams, who arranged the meeting, stated this was not advocacy, the document produced by Adams and sent to our board for discussion begs to differ.  It specifically states “ We stand ready to advocate for legislative policies that advance locally agreed upon strategic objectives and that prepare and position students for graduation and post-secondary success.

“I do not feel superintendents should be using their taxpayer-funded workplace duty day to lobby legislators, especially without any board members who each superintendent works directly for, in attendance.”

The Lansing school board discussed the proposed legislative agenda recently and raised multiple concerns.  Superintendent Marty Kobza said it wasn’t a formal proposal for the board to approve, yet he went around the board to pitch legislators without their approval.

Dave Trabert, CEO of Kansas Policy Institute, which owns the Sentinel, says this is another example of superintendents pushing political agendas while ignoring the student achievement crisis.

“These superintendents’ actions demonstrate why outcomes won’t improve without legislative intervention that compels improvement.  Proficiency is relatively low across Leavenworth County, and large numbers of students are below grade level, yet these superintendents pursue a political agenda in near defiance of board members’ wishes.”

The group tentatively scheduled another meeting for early in the legislative session.