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KC Suburbs Center of Political Backlash07/30 10:23

   SHAWNEE, Kan. (AP) -- Small-government Republican conservatives face a 
political backlash in Kansas because of the state's budget problems and battles 
over education funding, and the epicenter is in sprawling Kansas City suburbs 
where residents have cherished public schools for decades.

   But the Democrats and GOP moderates hoping to lessen the grip Republican 
Gov. Sam Brownback's allies have on the Legislature must contend with a 
political paradox in Johnson County, home to those affluent suburbs. Its voters 
regularly approve bonds and property tax increases for schools while electing 
conservative legislators who've backed the governor's experiment in slashing 
state income taxes.

   More than two dozen conservative Republican legislators face challengers in 
Tuesday's primary, including 11 in Johnson County, the state's most populous. 
Challengers there have made education funding a key issue.

   "You could rely on one thing, and that was public education," said Gretchen 
Gradinger, a lawyer and Johnson County native who moved back from Missouri two 
years ago so her young son could attend the public schools she knew growing up. 
"For 60 years, you could rely on one thing."

   Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since the Republican-dominated 
Legislature heeded Brownback's call in 2012 and 2013 to cut personal income 
taxes as an economic stimulus. He won a tough re-election race in 2014, but his 
popularity has waned with the state's ongoing budget woes.

   Meanwhile, the Kansas Supreme Court could rule by the end of the year in an 
education funding lawsuit on whether legislators provide enough money to 
schools to fulfill a duty under the state constitution to finance a suitable 
education for every child. The State Board of Education is recommending phasing 
in an $893 million increase in aid over two years.

   Johnson County is seeing an effort to oust conservatives because strong 
public schools have been crucial to the post World War II population boom that 
has never stopped. The population has doubled over the past generation, to 
about 580,000 --- 20 percent of the state's total.

   Yet the county also is a business-friendly Republican stronghold that's key 
to the right's strength statewide. Affluent communities where parents worry 
that their schools are slipping also have plenty of Republican-leaning 
residents skeptical that government runs efficiently enough.

   Kim Stevermer, a contractor, lives a few minutes' drive from Shawnee Mission 
Northwest High School , from which he graduated in the 1970s. He said strong 
schools are vital --- "bad schools, bad neighborhood, you know?" --- but 
generally supports Republicans because he sees them as more entrepreneurial and 
closer to Thomas Jefferson's vision of limited government.

   Recently, Tom Cox , running in the GOP primary against conservative state 
Rep. Brett Hildabrand , of Shawnee, visited Stevermer and talked about 
education funding. Stevermer told him, "Maybe we should look at administrative 
costs of running the schools."

   Other voters expressed similar sentiments. Cox stressed that he would look 
for ways to make state government more efficient and considers himself fiscally 
conservative.

   Hildabrand is running both on his conservative voting record and as a 
supporter of local schools. The state's aid to its 286 school districts exceeds 
$4 billion a year --- more than half of the tax dollars it collects --- and 
Hildabrand contends an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars isn't 
required. He said voters don't see legislators or candidates as anti-education 
for holding that view.

   Conservatives in Johnson County also bolster their argument that legislators 
adequately fund schools by pointing to their local schools.

   The Shawnee Mission district , with nearly 28,000 students, provides MacBook 
Air laptops to all middle and high schoolers and iPads to every elementary 
school student starting in kindergarten. High school sophomores can enroll in a 
culinary arts program that has its own bistro.

   Both it and the neighboring Blue Valley district , with more than 22,000 
students, have advanced programs for students aspiring to careers in medicine 
or engineering.

   Such examples prompt Dan Kirton, an ex-Marine and grandfather from Shawnee, 
to ask, "Is the sky falling?"

   Yet Kirton acknowledged feeling that the state is on the wrong course. 
There's also no denying some parents' concerns about what the future holds for 
their children's schools amid the state's financial problems.

   Amber Clark said her parent-teacher association at Prairijdhe Elementary in 
Overland Park raised about $60,000 during the last school year to ensure that 
teachers had enough aides and that speech therapy was available for students 
like her 7-year-old son, Oscar.

   "Every year, we seem to be losing a little," she said.


(KA)

 
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