Daily Archives: Oct. 17, 2012

Brownback task force opens site for anonymous reports of school inefficiencies

Brownback discusses school spending during a news conference in the Statehouse last week

Gov. Sam Brownback announced Wednesday that his school efficiencies task force has set up a website for people to anonymously report examples of wasteful spending and inefficient practices in Kansas schools.

The website is the latest effort by the Republican Governor to root out inefficiencies in the school system that he recently stressed he has been putting more money into.

Brownback has said not enough money is being spent on classrooms, and he says he wants to improve 4th grade reading levels and the number of students who graduate high school career- or college-ready.

“We hope to hear from a lot of Kansans who take a few minutes to go online and share their thoughts with us,” Task Force Chairman Ken Willard said.

The 10-member task force includes six certified public accountants, including Steve Anderson, Brownback’s budget director. They met for the first time last week, hearing testimony from a limited government think tank and a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Brownback faced criticism from Democrats for not including people on his task force who work in schools. In response, the Kansas Association of School Boards set up its own task force.

Along with the anonymous inefficiency reporting portal, Brownback announced Wednesday that Iola (USD 257) Superintendent Brian Pekarek will join the task force.

Brownback last week stressed that the budget he approved increased school funding by about $40 million. That came as part of his administration’s reaction to a flurry of ads by Democrats that say Brownback has cut school funding more than any other governor.

Under Brownback, the amount of per pupil state aid, a common measurement for how much the state spends on educating each student, has fallen. But overall spending, which includes growing pensions and bond financing, has increased.

“The state has increased total spending on education by almost $1 billion since 2000,” Brownback said in a statement about the online inefficiency reporting. “Many school districts have raised taxes on local property owners during that same time period.  Moving forward, we owe it to Kansas taxpayers to ensure those resources are used as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

Democrats have sharply criticized Brownback for the massive income tax cut that he signed into law earlier this year. It is projected to force the state to drastically cut services because it is projected to force more than $2.5 billion in spending reductions over six years.

Brownback has said he will protect education funding. But Democrats say it will be virtually impossible not to cut schools because they constitute the majority of state general fund spending. And they say Brownback is acknowledging the state’s future shortfalls by not ruling out the continuation a temporary sales tax hike approved in 2010 to protect the state from deeper cuts in the wake of the recession.

“Instead of hosting an online forum to complain about public schools, why not discuss all the innovative ways our teachers and administrators have done more with less since Gov. Brownback implemented the largest cut to education funding in Kansas history?” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. “We should celebrate our public schools and fully restore the funding cuts they’ve endured since the recession began. We should not be demonizing them and searching for excuses to cut their funding even more.”


Health aspects of fluoridated water debated at county meeting

The fluoride fight spilled over into the Sedgwick County Commission chambers Wednesday with about 20 people debating the benefits and risks of putting the cavity-fighting chemical in Wichita’s city drinking water.

The commission has no authority over the decision whether to fluoridate the water, which will be decided by voters in a ballot initiative Nov. 6.

But the county injected itself into the debate when the Health Department put a fact sheet on the county website that fluoride opponents interpreted as being pro-fluoridation.

Fluoride opponent Julie Simpson said she came to the meeting to protest “illegal use of my tax dollars to promote a campaign … taxpayer dollars were improperly used and illegally spent.”

Objections over the fact sheet, which has been removed from the site, prompted commissioners to hold what was essentially an open-mike day, allow both sides to air their views in the meeting televised on local public television.

Proponents of fluoride, including Bill Maas, the former director of the Division of Dental Health at the US Centers for Disease Control, renewed their claim that fluoride at the levels to be used in tap water is safe and effective and more than pays for itself by preventing cavities and the treatment necessary to fix them.

Citing insurance data, Maas said Wichita spends about $25million a year on dental treatments to repair new cavities.

“It’s important that community water fluoridation results in approximately 25 percent reduction in tooth decay,” said Maas, who now works for the Pew Charitable Trust. “It’s safe. I’m not going to give you any percentages because it is absolutely safe. It is cost effective.”

Pressed by commissioners Richard Ranzau and Jim Skelton, he acknowledged that municipal fluoridation can result in a condition called mild fluorosis, in essence white spots caused by crystalline changes in tooth enamel.

He said his own children may have such spots — probably from swallowing fluoride toothpaste as children — but that the spots are harmless and his kids have “beautiful” teeth.

“We (public health officials) accept a tradeoff between very mild fluorosis and (preventing) tooth decay,” he said.

Ranzau said he thinks accepting that tradeoff should be an individual, not a community decision.

And Skelton said he was disturbed that Maas would characterize spots on his daughter’s teeth as beautiful.

“If I found on my daughter’s teeth a substance that is abnormal, caused by chemicals introduced in our water supply … I’d be beyond irritated,” Skelton said. “I would wonder what internal effects would be going on, what kind of white spots is she going to have on her bones, etc. That’s a symptom of something larger, sir.”

Maas replied that there has been more than 30 years of study on fluoridated water by some of the nation’s top researchers, almost all of whom live in communities with fluoridated water.

“We’ve been continuing to study whether there’s any … other health effects from fluoride and none have been detected,” he said.

Skelton responded that scientific research changes conclusions all the time.

“If you’re telling me … you’re able to identify chemicals that are not natural to the body, I think you’ve made my point for me, sir,” Skelton said.

Most of the speakers from the general public were against fluoridation. Several claimed to have health conditions that would be worsened if the fluoride content in the water were increased.

Zella Newberry said she has arthritis, threatening her ability to work as massage therapist.

“The doctors told me I was allergic to something, but that something they didn’t know,” she said. “It turns out it was fluoride and I was getting it in Dr. Pepper, fruits and vegetables with insecticide, toothpaste and all those things”

By dropping the Dr. Pepper and switching to organic vegetables, “I cleared about 75 percent. I can now continue to work, I do have to wear gloves,” she said.

But Leah Barnhart said she had suffered from the lack of fluoride in the water.

She said that although she had the best dental care available and took “impeccable” care of her teeth, she only has five teeth out of 32 without a cap or filling. She said she expects the problem to get worse and more expensive as she ages.

“Looking back, I would have been very happy to pay the nine cents a month or whatever it costs for fluoridated water because it would have reduced the number of cavities in my mouth.”