Three new members of the 10-person Kansas Board of Education made their presence felt at their first meeting by raising questions about COVID-19 relief funding for local school districts, the summer food program for malnourished students and retention of the Board of Education’s attorney. The image is the statehouse mural honoring the Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregation of schools unconstitutional. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Kansas Board of Education member Dennis Hershberger interrupted a presentation on school nutrition programs during his first meeting as a board member by inquiring about ideological justification for government spending on summer meals for children.
“How did that evolve?” said Hershberger, among three new Republicans on the board. “What created that need?”
In addition to curiosity about what justified the summer meal program, Hershberger asked what was being done in school cafeterias across Kansas to eliminate food waste. The retired nurse and truck driver said he read U.S. consumers threw out approximately one-third of food purchases.
Cheryl Johnson, director of the Kansas Department of Education’s child nutrition and wellness division, said research established that inadequately nourished students didn’t learn as well as those who had their nutritional needs met. Federal food programs were extended to summer because so many children didn’t have access to healthy food choices during that part of the year, she said.
“We only provide information based on true science — not all the things you read on the internet,” Johnson said. “Nutritional health truly does impact your academic performance. If the child is hungry, they cannot hear the teacher over the rumblings of their tummy.”
She said Kansas schools served 96 million meals in the 2022 fiscal year and received federal reimbursement of $367 million for those activities.
Hershberger, a Hutchinson Republican who defeated incumbent Ben Jones in the Republican primary and faced no Democratic opposition in the November general election, said he was pleased Johnson was actively seeking to minimize food waste in schools.
State Board of Education member Jim McNiece, who had a 39-year career in public and private education as a teacher and principal, said food service programs contributed to students’ academic progress, improved behavior, made children feel more connected and reduced absenteeism due to illness.
He said school-provided meals for students were often more nutritious than food available in the home. He said it was a mistake when board members evaluated food programs only from a middle-class perspective.
“I cannot overstate how important this program is,” said McNiece, pointing to the risk of Board of Education members neglecting hunger among students. “They make decisions about what programs we do and don’t do based on their experiences. Not the experiences of the poor — not experiences of those who are basically left out.”
An ethical lapse?
Danny Zeck, a new state Board of Education member from Leavenworth, objected during his initial meeting to proposed renewal of a contract with the board’s attorney, Mark Ferguson of Overland Park. He’s served as legal counsel to the state Board of Education since 2009 through a series of one-year contracts.
Zeck criticized Ferguson for donating to a state Board of Education member’s campaign in 2022. Campaign finance reports show Ferguson gave $250 to Jones, who lost to Hershberger. In 2022, Ferguson donated $500 to Democratic attorney general candidate Chris Mann. He has donated thousands of dollars to Derek Schmidt, a Republican who served as attorney general and lost the November race for governor to Democrat Laura Kelly.
Zeck won in November by defeating Democrat Jeffrey Howards by a margin of 61% to 38%. In November, all five people elected to the 10-person state board were Republicans.
“Is it ethical for somebody that represents 10 board members to donate to someone’s campaign?” said Zeck, who suggested he would like to reopen the search process for a board attorney. “We don’t interview other people to see if we have the best one out there?”
Ferguson said he wasn’t the appropriate person to answer Zeck’s question on campaign ethics. He recommended Zeck take his concern to the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
“I donated to your opponent,” state Board of Education member Ann Mah told Zeck. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to get along fabulously.” Mah, of Topeka, donated at least $200 to Howards’ campaign.
‘Drunk’ on federal dollars?
The presence of new members on state Board of Education was evident during votes on whether to approve local school district requests for expenditure of federal COVID-19 relief funding.
The state previously approved 180 proposals tied to $600 million targeted at remediating academic issues emerging during the global pandemic. The rules also allow districts to invest in one-time expenditures that contributed to improving school operations.
During the most recent state Board of Education meeting, the members were asked to vote on plans from 11 districts, including nine with high poverty enrollments, for use of $15.5 million in relief funding. A task force vetted each proposal before they were forwarded to the state Board of Education.
Hershberger, the new Hutchinson member, said he was concerned Kansas school districts could become addicted to federal funding and suffer financial withdrawal symptoms when that cash ran out.
“The federal money is going to go away. What’s the plan for the future?” he said. “This is the tug and pull when the federal money is offered. It’s just human nature to become, I use the word drunk, on having extra money.”
Mah said the funding was important to help students regain what was lost during the pandemic. She urged conservatives on the Board of Education to approve the $15.5 million request. If not, the money would be sent back to the federal government and an arbitrary group of local districts would be left out.
“I ask you not to make a statement vote,” Mah said. “I ask you to support our kids.”
Initially, the state Board of Education voted down the request. There were five votes in favor of the expenditure, but six were required. The “yes” votes were from members Deena Horst of Salina, Melanie Haas of Overland Park, Jim Porter of Fredonia, McNiece and Mah. Zeck voted “no” while three members — Hershberger, Cathy Hopkins of Hays and Michelle Dombrosky of Olathe — abstained. Board member Betty Arnold was absent.
The vote not only blocked allocations to those 11 districts, but put in jeopardy 87 pending proposals from local school districts for $151 million in federal funding tied to COVID-19. All the money must be spent by the end of 2023.
After the 5-1-3 vote, the state Board of Education took a recess. Hopkins, who defeated incumbent Jean Clifford in the GOP primary in August and had no general election opponent, returned from the break to request reconsideration of the COVID-19 funding proposals.
“My abstention was not to say ‘no.’ I need to make that clear,” Hopkins said. “I was voting my own conscience. The shock of the outcome left me speechless. I’m not okay with the outcome.”
Hopkins dropped her abstention, voted for the $15.5 million funding package and delivered the required six-vote majority.
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