With the 2019 legislative session wrapped up, Gov. Laura Kelly paid a visit to Hays, participating in a town hall meeting with area legislators Monday and speaking to people who gathered Tuesday morning for a community engagement session on resources for early childhood development.
Tuesday morning’s session at Fort Hays State University’s Memorial Union was part of an ongoing series of 37 sessions across the state by the Kansas Children’s Cabinet, whose goal is to create a comprehensive statewide early childhood education system, Kelly said.
The series of meetings is designed to gather information about early childhood programs across the state and identify what works and what is still needed, said Melissa Rooker, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet.
“What we’re doing is trying to get feedback from local communities about what they’ve got going on in early childhood now, where the gaps are, and what we might be able to do, how we might be able to network them with others to fill some of those gaps and to really expand these programs,” Kelly said.
The Kansas Department of Education, Department for Children and Families and Department of Health and Environment are collaborating with the Children’s Cabinet. But the goal is to include more than just state government, Rooker said.
“This is about the entire early childhood ecosystem, all types of providers, all types of programs,” she said.
The Kansas Children’s Cabinet, which oversees funds the state receives from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement — the 1998 settlement of a lawsuit between 46 states and the four largest U.S. tobacco companies — makes its investment recommendations on three key elements, Rooker said.
Those are healthy development, strong families and early learning. Health care, food, shelter, transportation, parent education programs and childhood education are all involved in those elements.
“We are trying to wrap in the voices of all types of providers. So whether they’re public or private provider, whether they’re faith-based or affiliated with a school, whatever, home-based. We want to hear from all voices,” she said.
While the goal is create a plan for early childhood education and support to recommend to the governor and the Legislature, Rooker said it’s being done knowing that no community will have the same needs.
“We have no intention of trying to propose one size fits all,” she said. “We really and truly want to meet the needs of our fellow Kansans and their communities, honor existing programs, but make sure that we are not duplicating effort and wasting resources,” she said.
At Monday night’s town hall meeting at Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Kelly touted her administration’s efforts to fix the broken foster care system.
Most important among the accomplishments was appointing Laura Howard as secretary for the Department for Children and Families, Kelly said, calling Howard one of the “best and the brightest” in child welfare.
Kelly also thanked the Legislature for increasing funding to DCF.
“That will allow them to start hiring social workers again, so that we can work to keep kids out of the system, and should they be in the system, the social workers will be there to work with the families to get them back into their natural family or to get them to an adoptive family,” Kelly said.
While Kelly and Republican legislators Rep. Ken Rahjes, of Agra, Rep. Barbara Wasinger, of Hays, and Sen. Rick Billinger, of Goodland, had some disagreements on their assessment of the 2019 legislative session, they did find some common ground, among them making up missed payments to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.
While the program’s funding is above “code red,” Billinger said, it’s important to remain vigilant.
“Our unfunded liability is still very, very large, it’s still over $7 billion,” he said. “I believe when the state employees put their money in, they put in their time working, but the state needs to make sure we put our money in at the same time.”
“We are going in the right direction, and I think Sen. Billinger is right,” Kelly said. “The state needs to do its fair share.”
The legislators and Kelly were also in agreement that the school finance bill passed by the Legislature will likely satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court ruling and were hopeful it would end any further litigation. The measure increased spending on public schools by about $90 million.
“We have sent that package now to the court, and the court is looking it over and deciding whether it’s good enough. My sense is that they will say yes, that it is,” Kelly said.
“The questions that came from the justices have many of us believing yes. My gut says they’ll say it’s OK, but I would guess they will hold onto it and not dismiss it and kind of hold our feet to the fire, all of us there under the dome to make sure,” Rahjes said.
The audience showed much support for Kelly, applauding when she said Medicaid expansion — which failed to pass the Kansas Senate this session — is the right thing to do.
“I was very impressed with Gov. Kelly’s answers,” said Shaelin Sweet, Hays, after the town hall, noting Kelly seemed well informed about the City of Hays R9 Ranch water project. “She was knowledgeable about not only issues that affect the entire state, but issues that affect specifically rural Kansas.”
Sweet’s companion, Derek Ingalls, was less impressed with the legislators, however.
“I feel like the legislators didn’t really want to talk about how they actually like to vote. I feel like they were just really avoiding trying to say they didn’t really want Medicaid expansion,” he said.