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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series on the impact of Gov. Sam Brownback’s policies on Kansas. The first story examined the governor's re-election race.
MARQUETTE, Kan. — You can still buy the T-shirt of the beloved Marquette Elementary School Wolverines at the Capital Sundries store on Washington Street, the main strip in this Kansas prairie town. But the school — the last one in this town of 650 people — no longer exists. It shut down earlier this year.
“We all saw this coming,” superintendent Glen Suppes told reporters on the day Marquette Elementary closed its doors in May. “If you watch what’s happening at the state level, budgets are going down. We can’t [just] cut little things that don’t affect kids.”
To many in the town, the school closing felt like a death in the family. “Those few last months, it was like having a terminal illness,” said Dori Weber, editor of the town’s four-page weekly newspaper, The Marquette Tribune, and mother of two former students at the school.
And there is no shortage of culprits for locals to blame. There’s Suppes and the school board members who voted for the closure. There are the residents who moved away, causing the school’s enrollment to drop from 130 to 67 in four years. There is Lindsborg, nine miles away, a bigger town of 3,400 that shares Marquette’s school district but kept its schools open when Marquette’s closed. There’s also the long history of rural school consolidation in Kansas, which began with the combining of thousands of independent districts into a few hundred in the 1960s. Marquette lost its high school in the 1980s; the junior high closed in 2011.
But what ultimately did in the Wolverines was money. Closing the school is expected to save the district $400,000 a year in a state where funding for education has become increasingly scarce — which in turn has made what’s happening in Marquette a story with much wider implications.
What’s “happening at the state level,” as Suppes put it, is this: Three years ago, Kansas’ Republican Gov. Sam Brownback arrived in office promising to restore the economy by slashing income taxes to attract more investment, jobs and people to the state. Those cuts, initiated in 2012, left Kansas with hundreds of millions of dollars less in revenue to pay for services. And by far the most politically sensitive area affected by those shortfalls has been education.
Kansans have long prided themselves on a strong public school system, which educates some 95 percent of the state’s children. The rising anger over cuts — and threatened further cuts — in the education budget has turned what was expected to be an easy re-election for Brownback, leading to a likely presidential run, into one of the closest gubernatorial races in the country.
‘People are seeing the larger class sizes, the fees that parents are having to pay. The test scores are going down.’
Democratic candidate for governor
With the election less than three months away and a third of voters saying that the results of the education debate will determine their vote, framing the tax cuts’ effect on schools has become the candidates’ top priority. Brownback and his opponent, Democratic state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, can’t even agree on how to measure education funding. The governor insists on a calculation that ignores inflation and includes mandated contributions to the state teachers’ pension fund. That method shows education spending on the rise.
But Mark Tallman, the associate executive director for the Kansas Association of School Boards, wrote in an August analysis that, when adjusted for inflation, total school funding “has essentially been flat,” while operating funds are down $290 million since 2011. Classroom spending has fallen 12 percent since 2009, to roughly $3,800 per pupil, according to the state Department of Education. State universities have been forced to raise tuition to make up for budget cuts. Earlier this year, the courts stepped in to force legislators to appropriate more money to the state’s school districts.
Those shortfalls seem to have exacerbated existing problems in individual school districts, causing some to shed staff or contemplate shutting down schools entirely. Sixty fewer public schools were operating in Kansas during the 2011–12 school year than two years prior, according to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Department of Education. But the numbers have been declining, though at a slower pace, since 2009. It is not clear how many of the recent closures were directly linked to budget cuts.
Davis is using concern about the system to his advantage. At an annual Democratic meeting in Wichita, he surrounded himself with teachers’ union members in red shirts reading “Raise your hand for public education.” The teachers, furious with Republicans over the overhauling of teacher tenure, railed against a governor who, they said, stabbed them in the back and left students to pick up the pieces.
“Our schools simply are underfunded right now, and Gov. Brownback made the single largest cut to school funding in state history. People are seeing the larger class sizes, the fees that parents are having to pay. The test scores are going down,” Davis, who led the governor in three August polls, said in an interview later that day.
Brownback is hitting back. Citing Davis’ vote against the spending bill that included the elimination of certain job protections for teachers, he accuses the Democrat of being the one who is standing in the way of classroom funding. “I love education! I love teachers! Teachers are transformers. They transform people’s lives,” he trumpeted at an education-themed press conference in Topeka in late August. He implored his allies, “Help us carry this message on forward. I’ve been putting money ineducation. My opponent’s been voting against putting money in education … That’s wrong.”
‘We had absolutely no say. We had no representation on the board … Our governor doesn’t listen anyway.’
Whatever happens now, it’s too late for Marquette Elementary. The school traced its origins to a wooden schoolhouse built soon after the town’s 1874 founding by Civil War veterans and Swedish immigrants. (The town was named for Marquette, Michigan, from which some prominent early residents hailed, hence the Wolverine mascot.) The school remained a point of pride and an economic engine. Its 12 teachers and staffers supported local businesses, and the presence of a well-regarded public school helped draw new residents — no small thing in a town that has resorted to giving free land to anyone willing to build a house there. The current school building is still featured on a mural at the end of Washington Street representing the town’s five values: education, religion, fellowship, civic pride and agribusiness.
The end came in a 90-minute meeting of the school board in Lindsborg on a cold February night. Residents pleaded with the board to reconsider. A Marquette rancher brought in a lawyer from the neighboring county of Ellsworth to propose alternate plans that might keep the school open, including transferring Lindsborg students in lower grades to Marquette. Some noted that, in a fit of irony, their school had only days before been recognized among the top 5 percent of elementary schools in the state on reading and math scores. The final vote to close the school was 6-1.
As the new school year began in August, former Marquette Elementary students packed up to go to new schools, mainly in Little River, about 20 miles south. (Many parents refuse to send their kids to the closer school in Lindsborg, still angry over the Lindsborg-dominated board’s decision.) There are a lot of adjustments to make: Classes are bigger. For many students, it was the first time they had been on a school bus. Some parents worry that their children will be discriminated against because they come from a small farm community, said the town’s mayor, Allan Lindfors.
Economically, the closing has put the town on shaky ground. The beauty shop, once frequented by schoolteachers who have now moved to other districts, has closed. Skye Farris, who runs a local day care, said some clients are moving their younger children to other facilities closer to their older kids’ new schools.
Those signs of trouble have frustrations running high. “We had absolutely no say,” Lindfors said. “We had no representation on the board.” Asked if the town council considered appealing the closure at a higher level in the state, the mayor shrugged. “Our governor doesn’t listen anyway.”
On the contrary, Topeka is very sensitive to the anger in places like Marquette that fear their schools might be next. Lawmakers just aren’t sure what to do. Fearful of a backlash, Republican lawmakers looking to cut education costs were advised last year to refer to consolidation proposals as “common-sense reorganization.”
Brownback is in a similar position. “I oppose consolidation,” he told the Topeka crowd. “Lots of times for a town, if they lose their school, you just as well close the town up too. It’s just not going to work.” The line drew applause. Reporters chased the governor afterward, asking for his specific plan for avoiding additional school closures. He dodged the question and climbed into his waiting car. “It’s not really a policy decision,” his spokesman explained as the governor drove away.