Affluent Kansas City Suburbs at Center of Political Backlash

Soggy sunrise
Downtown Kansas city, Missouri with passing rainstorm at sunrise taken from near top of Hyatt Regency hotel, Crown center.
Photograph by Don McLaughlin — 3rd Sibing Photography/Getty Images

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.”

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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% 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.

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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 (APPL) 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.

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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.

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