Angela Deines
April 2, 2015

Julio Rivera just wants state lawmakers to hear how cuts to the Kansas education budget are affecting him and his younger siblings.

“We see it in the news every day, but we’re not being heard,” the 17-year-old high school junior told a crowd of about 350 of his fellow Topeka West students on Thursday. “Kansas leaders need to hear us. We need jobs and college once we graduate. It’s up to us to make a difference. We can’t be ignored anymore.”

Not surprisingly, Rivera received the loudest applause of all the speakers who were invited to the mid-morning assembly to discuss how reductions in the state’s education budget are affecting students directly.

Annie McKay, executive director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, said she was happy to accept Rivera’s invitation to speak during Thursday’s assembly. She said high school students should be given credit for understanding how the individual income tax cuts have caused a $600 million shortfall that has contributed to the state’s education budget reductions.

“Sometimes when we throw out the millions and billions numbers, it gets a little weedy that it’s not that the people can’t comprehend them, but the numbers are so large,” McKay said. “One of the things the Kansas Center for Economic Growth aims to do is put it in the context that’s relatable to a broad audience. When I talk to students about it, it’s sort of like working a full-time job and going to part time and just hoping that it all works out. Those are the things people can relate to.”

Julie Ford, superintendent of Topeka Unified School District 501, told the students assembled in the Douglas P. Goheen Theatre that the district’s budget is getting cut by $1,619,679 this year as a result of block grants recently signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback. She said another $1,310,867 will be cut next year and then another $664,879 the following year.

Those figures add up to a loss of $3,595,425 as a result of the block grants.

Brownback and legislative leaders have said the block grants allow for more money to flow to the classroom. They contend the new funding mechanism gives school administrators and boards of education more flexibility to spend their money without restrictions.

Despite the gloomy funding picture painted by Ford, she said she was glad to see Rivera’s and Topeka West students’ interest in education funding.

“This is what I love about our kids in Topeka and especially Topeka West,” Ford said, “they are such critical thinkers. They’ve (Topeka West administrators) had students that are so upset about the budget cuts that are coming and what it would look like and just not knowing.”

Ford said she accepted the invitation from Topeka West’s principal, Dustin Dick, to speak during Thursday’s assembly. She said she would have no issue with having speakers with differing opinions on the education budget speak to USD 501 students if they are asked.

“It really isn’t a whole lot about politics,” Ford said. “These are the facts about the revenue coming to Kansas, and here’s the fact about what we’re getting in the block grants and you know, it could get worse before it gets better.”

After the assembly concluded, Mason Witzke, 16, Topeka West’s sophomore class president, asked Ford about the source and accuracy of some of the budget figures she used in her remarks to the students.

“As taxpayers, we have the constitutional right to know where our money is going. We should ask these kinds of questions,” he said after speaking with Ford, adding that students are taxpayers because they pay sales taxes. “It’s really confusing to come out of this with different numbers than what we’ve expected, whether that be positive or negative.”

Witzke said he thought Thursday’s assembly was unnecessary given that the issue of the state’s educational budget cuts is “very alive at Topeka West” with students and teachers talking about the cuts nearly every day.

“To take someone out of class to re-establish this issue that could be easily settled by 20 minutes of research just seems a little over the top to me,” he said.

Renee Howland, 17, a Topeka West junior, said the reductions in the state’s education budget have been discussed in her investing class. She said the cuts directly affect her and her classmates who are constantly fundraising for sports, music and other extracurricular activities.

“Not a lot of it was a surprise,” she said. “It’s super upsetting we’re getting cut, because of all the work that I’m involved in.”

Read more from the Topeka Capital Journal here.

ClayTOPEKA CAPITAL JOURNAL: ‘Kansas leaders need to hear us’: Topeka West students voice concern on the state of Kansas’ education budget