TOPEKA CAPITAL JOURNAL: Kansas Children’s Cabinet members rebuke leader over actions taken without consultation

By Jonathan Shorman
February 5, 2016

Members of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet rebuked the group’s leader Friday after she developed a series of funding recommendations with Gov. Sam Brownback for early childhood programs without the group’s approval that nevertheless purported to come from the cabinet.

Amanda Adkins, the cabinet chairwoman, said she needed to move fast in order to get ideas in front of lawmakers during the budget process. She called the recommendations – which the cabinet saw for the first time Friday – “foundational” and indicated she would welcome the group to vote on them in the future.

The recommendations come in a document that says they are “from the Kansas Children’s Cabinet.” Yet cabinet members said they had not voted on them.

Adkins, a Cerner executive, has deep ties to Brownback. She managed Brownback’s 2004 Senate re-election campaign, sits on the Kansas Chamber of Commerce board of directors and was appointed to the Children’s Cabinet by the governor. During Friday’s meeting, she often referred to personal conversations with the governor when explaining her actions.

“I wouldn’t be doing my job as chair of this cabinet if beyond this conversation I wasn’t asking Gov. Brownback to consider doing more with us,” Adkins said.

“So the last three months…I have spent a considerable amount of time talking with Gov. Brownback, our budget director, with his policy director, deputy chief of staff on, legislators, businesspeople, on and on. It has been a significant investment of time.”

Adkins acknowledged that the process was not perfect, but said she was trying to get ideas in front of the governor amid the budget process.

The recommendations are the product of the governor’s early childhood workgroup. The group included representatives of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, Kansas State Department of Education, Head Start, the governor’s office and the Children’s Cabinet, among others.

Brownback said this fall he believed there was poor coordination between public and private organizations that operate early education programs.

The recommendations the cabinet saw Friday focus on Sedgwick, Saline, Shawnee and Wyandotte Counties. The document calls for tiered child care subsidies in Saline and Shawnee counties based on quality to incentive high-quality providers to accept available subsidies. Cabinet members did not express opposition to the recommendations themselves, and in some cases praised them.

The action requested in the document is a new payment model that would be in place by July 1, 2016 – the start of the new fiscal year. The cost is estimated at $765,024 and would come from the Children’s Initiative Fund allotment to the Department for Children and Families child care subsidy.

Adkins also grabbed attention earlier this week with a letter to the editor in The Topeka Capital-Journal. Adkins wrote that Brownback would soon be announcing an expansion of partnerships between education, government and business leaders.

She also said the Children’s Cabinet would better coordinate with the Kansas State Department of Education.

The letter appeared to catch at least some cabinet members off guard, and Adkins sought to reassure them.

“No matter what, is in all of that time spent and what I just shared with you, the most important thing you should know is that the governor significantly values the Children’s Cabinet and in our discussions we think there’s a next evolution of what work we can do,” Adkins said.

Cabinet member Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City, called for more conversation and discussion with the cabinet before a recommendation takes place. Member Shannon Cotsoradis, the president of Kansas Action for Children, said she was disappointed with Adkins’ public statements.

But member Shari Weber, who was appointed by House Speaker Ray Merrick, did not express concern with Adkins’ actions.

“When you’re in a situation like that I would expect you would take the brains that have taken in all this data, that looked at it for a decade, and put it before them in a way that kind of makes sense,” Weber said. “I know you don’t have time to call me and ask my permission.”

That drew an immediate response from member LeEtta Felter, who was appointed by the governor.

“Why even have a cabinet then?” Felter said. “There is a difference between presenting data and a plan and speaking on behalf of the rest of us.”

Adkins called the exchange “great dialogue.” She said that at no point when she was speaking with the governor did she say she was speaking on behalf of the cabinet. She described the conversations as dialogue around where the governor wants to invest time.

The tension between Adkins and some members of the board also lies in Adkins’ response to Brownback’s proposal to transfer the Children’s Initiative Fund – which is administered by the cabinet – to the state general fund. Adkins has said the change, which would affect about $50 million, would not impact the cabinet’s role, responsibility or focus.

Senate and House budget committees are currently working through the budget proposal and some lawmakers are pushing to block the change.

KSDE has endorsed the proposal, and Education Commissioner Randy Watson has spoken in favor of it. State budget director Shawn Sullivan has said the change would not affect program spending, though skeptics fear the move could make it more difficult to track if the funds are being used to plug budget holes.

“There was certainly no public dialogue, but as a member I’m also aware there was no private dialogue, allowing members to have input before learning of a proposal not just to sweep the funds but to really move the cabinet’s work in an entirely different direction,” said Cotsoradis, who was appointed by Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley.

“That’s really not a recommendation coming from the cabinet because there was no dialogue with the cabinet. So I was also deeply disappointed that there was not an opportunity for cabinet input but also that Commissioner Watson stood up in committee and talked about the lack of coordination and how that can be better achieved under the Department of Education without any conversation at this table with all the relevant players here.”

The cabinet concluded by agreeing to schedule an additional, potentially virtual, meeting before its next scheduled meeting on April 22.

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