FORT RILEY — It’s been no secret in the Sunflower State or in the nation that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has had difficulties with the topic of education before and since he was re-elected last November.
The state has thrown out its old school finance formula and has temporarily adopted block grant funding while a new plan is supposedly being worked on by legislators in Topeka. Meanwhile, some school districts closed their doors early last year citing budget troubles as the cause and according to a report published last October from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, per-pupil spending in Kansas has decreased 14.6 percent since 2008 — the sixth biggest reduction in the country.
So when the governor had an opportunity on Friday morning to speak at Fort Riley — home of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division — and participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the brand new $22-million, 76,000 square-feet Fort Riley Elementary School, he seemed happy to take it.
Of that $22 million, $17.6 million was paid for by the federal government. The state chipped in $3.4 million and USD 475 contributed $1 million.
“I’m delighted the federal government stepped up with so much resources,” he said from the “Big Red One” marked podium following comments from Maj. Gen. Wayne W. Grigsby, Jr., the commanding general of Fort Riley. “I’m delighted the state of Kansas could put up some resources as well.”
Before he said that, though, Brownback spoke to the military parents and educators of the children behind him.
“We have been in combat now for 20 years and there is no end in sight,” he said. “I wish I could say that, that we are soon not going to be in combat, but with ISIS and what they’re doing, we got to continue to stay focused in Afghanistan. This war on terrorism continues. It’s not abating and the best thing we can do is stay on offense and not be on defense.”
Then after congratulating and honoring men and women in uniform, Brownback seemed to address fears at home.
“I wish the world were a different place,” he said. “I was at a town hall meeting and some people said, ‘Why don’t we all just lay all of our guns down and let’s just talk… let’s just be at peace.’
“And I said, you know, I would love if that were the situation. I honestly would. That would be a delightful thing. It’s just not the reality. We lay down our gun and they come running over us and they’re coming here. And we’ve had difficulties here. So we have got to continue to support our military, and one of the things we can do is provide a first class education.”
The governor — who earlier urged the crowd to hug a legislator — also spoke about the importance of partnerships between federal, state and local governments.
This is a change of heart from earlier this week when it comes to the acceptance of federal assistance. On Wednesday, Brownback’s office again said it wouldn’t use federal dollars to expand Medicaid for 150,000 low income and disabled Kansans, calling the idea “morally reprehensible” and that it would create a “new entitlement class.”
Friday morning, federal assistance wasn’t so bad.
“Today’s ribbon cutting is possible only because of the partnership — and you’ve heard it delineated: the federal government putting in most of the resources, the state stepping up and the local school district as well,” he said. “Without that partnership we aren’t in front of this building today.
“Students of Fort Riley soldiers will now learn in safer, more modern classrooms with fabulous teachers. When soldiers leave on deployment, we want to ease their minds knowing their kids are getting a great education. Kansas is honored to take care of Fort Riley’s kids. God bless you all.”
The new school features include a cafeteria with seating for 201 students along with two music rooms featuring 16-foot ceilings and were analyzed by an acoustical consultant. It also features a media center with two classroom areas and large smart monitors with touchscreens that allow for integrating technology for students.
The school is large enough for 500 K-5 students and the gymnasium also serves as a tornado safe room built to FEMA standards to withstand 250 mph wind speeds.