Manhattan Mercury. February 24, 2021.

Editorial: The path forward along the Kansas River

There’s a lot to like about the concept of a bike trail along the Kansas River, from Junction City to Wamego. There are also some major bumps on the path forward, if you’ll pardon the wordplay.

The concept surfaced this week in public meetings; among other things, the Riley County Commission agreed to support the concept, without committing any money.

The idea is to build a trail along the river, the origin of which is at Junction City. (History lesson: The reason for that city’s name is that it’s the location of the junction of the Republican and Smoky Hill rivers. Those two merge to form the Kansas River.)

The trail itself is envisioned as partly paved and partly unpaved. It’s 44.5 river miles in the region we’re talking about. It’s also potentially part of a network that would include Topeka and Lawrence, so that there could be a network along the entire river’s length, east all the way to Kansas City, according to Christy Rodriguez. Ms. Rodriguez is the head of the Flint Hills Regional Council, the entity that’s trying to move forward with the concept.

Right now, it’s just an idea, without any money behind it. The regional council is gathering input and indications of general support from area communities and trying to get some help from federal entities to do the planning that would put some oomph behind it.

It’s a tantalizing idea. If people here could ride a bike the entire width of our region — and make use the river that unites us all — that would be a significant lifestyle upgrade. It’s worth exploring, certainly.

Major questions remain: Who would pay for the trail, and who would maintain it? When the river comes up — which it inevitably will — who will fix the trail when it washes out?

Possibly most importantly, at least at the outset, is this: Will private property owners be willing to allow a trail to cut across their land? Land all the way up to the riverbank is private property, at least in most places. Perhaps there would be benefits to property owners who do so, but clearly the government is not going to take that ground by force.

Ms. Rodriguez says a network of trails could be started just by building around public access points already in place, near boat ramps in each community. It could connect to pre-existing trail networks, including the Linear Park trail in Manhattan. Building the whole thing all the way out could take decades, she acknowledges, and might not even be possible if property owners are unwilling.

So it’s not something to hold your breath about. Lots of potential hurdles. But we salute the regional council for moving forward with the project, and we encourage local governments to be supportive.

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Wichita Eagle. February 26, 2021.

Editorial: It’s time to reopen Kansas schools — and be honest about learning losses

After wisely opting to fast-track vaccines for teachers, Kansas should soon see a widespread return to in-person learning.

And not a moment too soon.

It’s been nearly a year since Gov. Laura Kelly closed schools statewide to curb the spread of COVID-19 — a prudent decision, but one that led to massive upheaval for students and their families.

And while teachers should be commended for continuing lessons through an unprecedented pandemic — adjusting, adapting, persisting and pivoting more than an NBA All-Star — the fact remains that students will return to classrooms with marked deficits in both academic and social/emotional areas.

Moving forward, Kansas school districts must be honest about those challenges and craft a plan to make up for lost time.

We don’t yet know how far behind students may have fallen during the pandemic in Wichita or elsewhere. But using data from past school closures, along with regular trends such as summer breaks, national researchers have started releasing projections of learning loss — and the picture is grim.

McKinsey, a national consulting and research firm, predicts that by the fall of 2021, students will have lost three months to a year of academic growth, depending on the quality of their remote instruction.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all students, it has taken an especially heavy toll on Black, Hispanic and American Indian communities, and school shutdowns could prove devastating to students of color, McKinsey reports.

Another consequence of the pandemic: More parents are holding children out of preschool and kindergarten altogether — a fact that will widen learning gaps and could even affect school funding.

In Wichita, where overall enrollment is down more than 5% from 2019, kindergarten enrollment is down 9%, and pre-K enrollment is down nearly 22%, according to figures provided by the district.

“We know parents of younger students had concerns of sending their children to school,” district spokeswoman Susan Arensman said in an e-mail. “We heard this from families as we were enrolling students this year.”

Although Kansas doesn’t require kindergarten — a fact lawmakers should reconsider moving forward — educators say kindergarten helps children develop academic, social and emotional skills and has a notable effect on later learning.

And then there’s the issue of overall attendance.

Last summer, Wichita officials said 16.3% of high-schoolers, 15% of middle-schoolers and 8.1% of elementary students had no contact with educators during the final months of the 2019-2020 school year. They pointed to a lack of digital devices as a reason some students were AWOL, and they spent $24 million on technology to bridge the divide.

This year, teachers have a better handle on remote learning. But quarantines, spotty internet and the challenges of keeping kids engaged online has illuminated the need to get students back in schools as quickly as is safely possible.

Now, thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine, it could finally be back-to-school time in Kansas — time to get a closer look at where students are and where we go from here.

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Lawrence Journal-World. March 1, 2021.

Editorial: City needs to hit reset button before moving ahead with $1M-plus hiring plan

Buying is almost always easier than getting buy-in. Lawrence City commissioners on Tuesday need to make sure they get the public’s buy-in before they agree to spend more than $1.3 million to add anywhere from 9.5 to 13.5 full-time positions to the city’s staff.

At their meeting on Tuesday, city commissioners are being asked by staff members to include the additional spending and the additional positions in a forthcoming quarterly adjustment to the 2021 budget.

Staff members noted that the 2021 city budget largely was a placeholder budget, as it was crafted during the early stages of the pandemic last spring and summer. Staff at the time said that adjustments to the budget were likely, given that a clearer picture would emerge as we fought our way through the COVID-19 crisis.

That was a fair enough strategy, and indeed budget adjustments will be needed throughout the course of the year. That’s one reason why it is particularly important to make sure this particular set of adjustments is done right.

For most members of the public, the idea of 10 or more new positions to the city’s payroll is a fairly new idea. The Journal-World posted a basic article about the idea on Friday evening after reviewing and comprehending the city’s recently released agenda for its Tuesday evening meeting.

For members of the public to study the issue themselves and form a reasoned opinion before Tuesday’s meeting is a pretty quick turnaround. The best that probably can be crafted is a knee-jerk reaction. It is quite possible such a knee-jerk reaction would center on the idea of government getting bigger when many of Lawrence’s businesses are getting smaller. Quite a reaction could be crafted around that dichotomy.

In may be the wrong reaction, though. People are important, and sometimes you simply have to have a certain number of them as an organization to accomplish your work. If you are wanting to change the shape and direction of your work and mission, certainly new and different types of people can be critical. The city may well be in that place.

The city manager argues that the positions are needed to keep the city on track to follow its strategic plan. Again, that may be the case, but most residents could offer no reasonable opinion on that assessment due to the inconvenient fact that most have forgotten what the city’s strategic plan includes.

That lapse certainly can be forgiven since it seems like a lifetime ago when the city crafted that plan. It really wasn’t that long ago — it was approved about four months ago — but the process did begin before COVID-19 struck. Understandably, both as a community and as individuals we have spent more time thinking about day-to-day tactics to battle the pandemic than longer-term visions for a future that still seems wishful on some days.

Plus, there is just some human nature to account for here. While the city did a lot of outreach during the strategic planning process, now is the point where some of those ideas start having hard dollar figures attached to them. For better or worse, some members of the public simply don’t pay attention until the dollar signs start appearing. They should be given some time to react to this latest proposal.

The city needs to hit a reset button before moving forward with these new positions and new spending. It could be cathartic and perhaps even celebratory. It would be a chance for the city to say, while we are not yet done fighting the pandemic, we have moved to a new phase where we can spend more time trying to accomplish the goals in our life prior to the pandemic. Step one of that process, though, should be reminding ourselves what those goals are and asking whether they need to adjust given the life-changing events we’ve been through.

Such a process doesn’t have to take a long time. But the city should give itself a month or so to review the strategic plan again, conduct some more outreach with the community about whether those goals still make the most sense in today’s world, and then give some thoughtful consideration to whether this proposed hiring plan is the best way to spend more than $1.3 million in our community.

Indeed, there may be more budget adjustments to come in 2021. This is an excellent opportunity for the city to set the right tone for future ones by taking the time to make sure the community is adequately engaged about the important question of the best path forward for our community.

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