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Headlines for Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Colorful graphic depicting stylized radios with text that reads Kansas Public Radio News Summary.
Emily Fisher

Lawrence School Board Votes 4-3 to Close Broken Arrow and Pinckney Elementary Schools

LAWRENCE, Kan. (LJW) - The Lawrence School Board has voted to close two elementary schools, Broken Arrow and Pinckney. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that the board listened to public comment for more than an hour Monday night before voting 4-3 to close the schools. The school closures were proposed as part of a budget reduction package meant to free up money for teacher and staff raises and other costs. The board already approved reducing middle and high school staff by 50 teachers, which is expected to save the district more than $3 million annually.


Kansas College Enrollment Plunges Over Decade

WICHITA, Kan. (KNS/KMUW) - Enrollment at public universities in Kansas has decreased dramatically over the past decade. The Kansas News Service reports that fewer people are going to any kind of schooling after graduating from high school. Enrollment at the state’s public universities has dropped more than 6% over the past decade. The data from community colleges is even more dramatic — they’re down more than 28%. Board of Regents President Blake Flanders says more high school grads are forgoing higher education altogether. “This is really troubling to me, because it’s anyone choosing any post-secondary option, and I think we have to focus a lot of our work here," he said. At high-poverty high schools in Kansas, less than a third of students seek any kind of higher degree.


Kansas High Court Signals Continued Support for Abortion Rights

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP/KPR) — The highest court in Kansas signaled Monday that it still considers access to abortion a "fundamental" right under the state constitution, as an attorney for the state argued that a decisive statewide vote last year affirming abortion rights "doesn't matter." The Kansas Supreme Court is considering exactly how far the Republican-controlled Legislature can go in restricting abortion under a 2019 decision protecting abortion rights. The justices heard arguments from attorneys for Kansas and abortion providers in two lawsuits but isn't likely to rule for months.

One lawsuit challenges a 2015 law banning a common second-trimester abortion procedure, and the other challenges a 2011 law that regulates abortion providers more strictly than other health care providers. Legal challenges have blocked both laws from being enforced.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared in June 2022 that the U.S. Constitution doesn't protect abortion rights and that states can ban abortion, but the Kansas court had ruled in 2019 that access to abortion is protected as a matter of bodily autonomy under the state constitution. That led the Legislature to put a proposed amendment on last August's ballot asking voters whether to lift that constitutional protection, which would have allowed lawmakers to restrict or possibly ban abortion. Voters rejected the measure.

But Kansas Solicitor General Tony Powell, representing the state, told the court that last year's vote "doesn't matter" and shouldn't factor into its decisions on the two lawsuits, arguing that voters might not have wanted abortion banned but still favor "reasonable" restrictions. He said the justices should "let the people work it out" through their elected representatives. Powell told reporters afterward: "The court is in the best position to remedy any mistakes that it made." Five of the six justices present for the arguments expressed skepticism while questioning Powell, who at one point said, "I'm doing the best I can." "We had a vote in August, and it was pretty overwhelming," Justice Dan Biles told him. "That's the elephant in the room."

The justices did ask Alice Wang, a Center for Reproductive Rights attorney representing the abortion providers, whether preserving life was a compelling state interest. She said that question was before the state Supreme Court when it ruled in 2019. "This court declined to recognize any compelling interest," Wang said.

Kansas allows most abortions until the 22nd week of pregnancy, attracting patients from other states with bans, most notably Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. Abortion opponents fear that Kansas courts will overturn many of the restrictions imposed over the past 30 years. The state is asking the state Supreme Court to overturn its 2019 decision, but the two cases also give the court the chance to narrow that ruling's scope by upholding either or both laws.

Many Republicans had expected Kansas voters to approve the proposed state constitutional change in August, and Powell acknowledged that he was "boxed in" by the state's failure to challenge much of the evidence presented by abortion providers to the trial court judge. Powell repeatedly argued that the justices also ought to consider federal court decisions or even decisions from other states' courts. "I think the court should have its blinders off," he said.

Among Republican-leaning states, Kansas is an outlier in preserving abortion access, in part because the state's abortion opponents preferred making year-by-year incremental changes prior to last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling. However, the state still forces patients to wait 24 hours before getting an abortion, requires minors to get parental consent, spells out what patients must be told in writing beforehand and even mandates that the information for patients be printed in 12-point Times New Roman type.

Three members of the court's 6-1 majority retired after the 2019 decision, but their replacements all were appointed by Democratic Governor Laura Kelly, a strong supporter of abortion rights. One of the new justices, K.J. Wall, recused himself from the cases, so six justices will decide them. The court did not give a reason for Wall's action.

The 2019 ruling came in the early stages of the lawsuit over a ban on a second-trimester abortion procedure. The justices kept the law on hold but sent the case back to the trial court to examine the ban further. A trial judge said the law could not stand. The law deals with a certain type of abortion called dilation and evacuation, or D&E. Critics call the procedure a dismemberment abortion because the live fetus is removed from the womb in pieces. A D&E procedure ban would force providers to use alternative methods that the Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion rights advocate, says are riskier and more expensive. Biles hit on that argument repeatedly during Monday's hearing.

The state's argument for banning the second-trimester abortion procedure was summed up in how they wrote the law. It specifically would prohibit doctors from using forceps or similar instruments on a live fetus to remove it from the womb in pieces. Such instruments are used in D&E abortions. Although Powell derided the specific method as "heinous," Biles told him that there is no evidence in the record that it is worse for the fetus than the alternatives.

Abortion providers saw the law requiring them to comply with stricter regulations than other types than of doctors as an attempt to regulate them out of business. A trial court judge ruled that the state had no justification for rules applying only to abortion providers, and the state appealed. Those behind the clinic regulation law argued that it would make clinics safer for women seeking abortions. Several justices were skeptical that the state has a compelling reason to treat abortion clinics differently than other health care providers.

The court will likely take months to issue its rulings.


Kansas Senate Approves Adoption Tax Credit

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - The Kansas Senate has given initial approval to a bill increasing state tax credits for adoption. Under the measure, those who adopt children would get almost $15,000 per child. The Senate also made the tax credit refundable. That means parents eligible for the tax credit would receive it in one payment from the state, rather than using it to reduce their income taxes for several years. Republican Senator Caryn Tyson opposed making the tax credit refundable. She says a single payment would be too costly for the state. “The state could be writing each family that adopts a $14,000 check," she said. "Our tax code is not a welfare program.” Supporters say the plan encourages adoption and provides better access to the benefit for parents with lower income. The Senate still needs to take a final vote on the bill.


Bill Lowering Child Care Regulations Passes Kansas Senate

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Child care regulations would be lowered in Kansas under a bill that has won Senate approval and created a debate over how best to address a shortage of day care spots without compromising safety.

The 21 to 17 vote Thursday sends the measure, backed by the parents of two young children, to the Kansas House, the Wichita Eagle reports.

The bill would roll back some of the changes put in place under a law named after Lexie Engelman, a 13-month-old child who suffered fatal injuries in a Johnson County day care in 2004. It would decrease training and continuing education requirements from teachers and staff in child care facilities while increasing the child-to-adult maximum ratio requirement for facilities.

“The current system is causing people to seek unregulated care," said Republican Sen. Kristen O’Shea of Topeka.

She and fellow Republican Sen. Chase Blasi of Wichita described their bill as the beginning of an answer in Kansas to a shortage of child care spots.

The state needs more than 85,000 new child care slots to meet existing demand, according to Child Care Aware of Kansas, a chapter of a national organization aimed at promoting quality child care.

But Kelly Davydov, executive director of Child Care Aware of Kansas, said the changes made after Lexie’s Law put Kansas at the top of the nation in terms of child safety.

“It really at that time launched us to the front of the line in terms of quality early care and education,” Davydov said. “Some of the changes in this bill are moving us away from national health and safety standards and best practices.”

Furthermore, Davydov said, the decreased continuing education could put Kansas out of compliance with existing requirements to receive federal child care funding.

Blasi said any issues regarding federal funding could be addressed as the bill works its way through the statehouse. He argued Kansas is more stringent than most other states, and the bill would bring the state’s requirements closer to the national averages.

But Sen. Mary Ware, a Wichita Democrat, called the bill rushed. While it may create more slots, she said it might do so by harming the safety of children and workers.

“It is not child-centered. It isn’t even child care worker-centered,” Ware said.

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly, a Democrat, has prioritized child care in her second term and announced a task force earlier this year to study the child care system in Kansas.

Her office said in a statement she would evaluate the legislation if it reaches her desk. Last year the Kansas Department of Health and Environment considered ratio changes similar to what was proposed in the bill. But those regulatory changes were halted after some providers expressed concern.

In a statement Matt Lara, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the agency is currently conducting a comprehensive review of existing regulations.

(– Related–)

Kansas Lawmakers Take Up Child Care Regulations

TOPEKA, Kan. (KPR) - Kansas lawmakers are trying to address a severe lack of child care, but some worry the proposal could actually make the situation worse. A bill in the Kansas Statehouse would strip away some child care regulations. There are multiple proposals, but the bills would allow providers to take in more kids with the same amount of staff or allow 16-year-olds to care for kids. Supporters say it will reduce red tape and let more businesses open, which would address child care shortages. John Wilson, with Kansas Action for Children, says lawmakers are moving too quickly to loosen rules that could make day cares less safe. “What we've seen with childcare closures hasn't been a result of regulations. Regulations are not shutting down childcare providers," he said. He says the shortage is a complicated problem involving challenges like pay for workers and simply loosening regulations won’t fix that.


Kansas House Votes to Prohibit Bans on Plastic Bags, Straws

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - The Kansas House has voted to prohibit local governments from banning single use plastics, like plastic bags and straws. But the bill fell short of a veto-proof majority and may not survive. Democratic Governor Laura Kelly vetoed a similar measure last year. Supporters argue plastic bans hurt small businesses that would need to spend more money on alternatives. Republican Representative Pat Proctor says many restaurants could even go bankrupt. “Restaurants operate on a razor thin margin. And we’ve already had to raise our prices because of the cost of eggs, the cost of meat," Proctor said. Critics say the bill takes away local control from city and county governments. The bill now heads to the Senate.


Company Recalls Pasta Dish Sold at Hy-Vee Grocery Chain, Including in Kansas

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A company announced Tuesday that it is recalling a packaged pasta dish sold in Hy-Vee grocery stores in eight Midwestern states, including Kansas. Chester, Illinois-based Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. said it was recalling Hy-Vee Hamburger Chili Macaroni Skillet Meals produced at a plant in Steeleville, Illinois, because of undeclared milk in the product. The milk could be dangerous to people who have an allergy or severe sensitivity to milk. The recall is for lots packaged in 5.2 ounce cartons that have a best by date of February 8, 2024. The food was sold at Hy-Vee and Dollar Fresh Market stores in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin. People can return packages to Hy-Vee stores for a refund or can discard it. Hy-Vee is based in West Des Moines, Iowa.


Study: Firearm Suicide Rates Higher in Rural Areas

HAYS, Kan. (KNS/HPPR) - A recent study says Americans in non-urban areas are at higher risk of dying by firearms than Americans living in big cities. That’s because of the high per-capita rates of suicide in many rural areas. The rate of firearm deaths in Kansas is 24% higher than the national average. But it’s not because of homicides. Those are below average. It’s because Kansans die by firearm suicides at a rate nearly 50% higher than the nation overall. The report from RAND, a public policy and health issues research group, found similar rates in other largely rural Great Plains states, too. RAND estimates that changing some Kansas gun laws, such as requiring a waiting period before buying a gun and raising the minimum purchasing age to 20, could prevent dozens of firearm deaths in the state each year.


Former Haskell President Files Complaint Alleging Corruption, Criminal Misconduct

LAWRENCE, Kan. (LJW) - A former Haskell Indian Nations University president has filed a complaint alleging “corruption, serial malfeasance, criminal misconduct and administrative wrongdoing” at the Bureau of Indian Education and on campus during his tenure. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that former president Ronald Graham submitted the complaint today (MON) to the Office of Special Counsel in Washington, D.C. The Office of Special Counsel protects federal employees from retaliation for whistleblowing. The Bureau of Indian Education oversees Haskell’s operations, meaning people who work at the university are federal employees. Graham served as Haskell’s president for about a year before he was removed from office following an internal investigation, criticism that he was stifling the free speech rights of students and faculty on campus and a vote of no confidence from Haskell’s faculty senate.


U.S. Supreme Court Won't Review GOP's Kansas Congressional Map

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court won't review a congressional redistricting law enacted by the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature that some voters and Democrats saw as political gerrymandering. The nation's highest court said Monday without explanation that it won't hear an appeal of a Kansas Supreme Court ruling from May 2022 that upheld the redistricting law, which was challenged by 11 voters. The appeal centered on the Kansas court's rejection of critics' claims that the new congressional map was racially gerrymandered. The Kansas court also ruled that the state constitution permits partisan gerrymandering. The GOP map had appeared to hurt the chances of reelection last year for the only Democrat in the state's congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, in her Kansas City-area district. But Davids still won her race in November by 12 percentage points. The law also moved the liberal northeastern Kansas city of Lawrence into a district with heavily Republican western Kansas. The Legislature must redraw political boundaries at least once every 10 years to ensure that districts are as equal in population as possible. The Kansas Supreme Court split 4-3 on whether the state constitution allows partisan gerrymandering. The Kansas court's majority said the state constitution doesn't bar lawmakers from considering partisan factors in drafting their maps. It added that state courts would have no clear standard for what constitutes improper gerrymandering absent a “zero tolerance” standard.


Family of Girl Killed by Police During Kansas Standoff Files Lawsuit

BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. (AP) — The family of a toddler who was fatally shot by a police officer during a standoff last year between her father and law enforcement has filed a federal lawsuit over her death. Kansas authorities have said that 2-year-old Clesslynn Crawford was shot by a Joplin, Missouri, police officer during a confrontation March 26, 2022, in Baxter Springs. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation had said Crawford's 37-year-old father, Eli Crawford, shot and killed the girl's mother, 27-year-old Taylor Dawn Shutte, and fired at officers for more than three hours before fatally shooting himself. The Wichita Eagle reports that the girl's family sued the cities of Baxter Springs and Joplin along with Cherokee County and the unnamed officer who fired the shot that killed the toddler. The lawsuit said they were responsible for the girl's death. Those cities and Cherokee County didn't immediately respond to calls from the newspaper seeking comment on the lawsuit. Officers from the Joplin police department and Cherokee County Sheriff's Department responded to the standoff. Joplin is 15 miles northeast of Baxter Springs.


Kansas Will Get Part of Settlement Against Cryptocurrency Platform

TOPEKA, Kan. (KPR) – Kansas has joined 27 other states in a $22.5 million settlement against Nexo Capital, a cryptocurrency-related financial service company. Kansas Insurance Commissioner Vicki Schmidt says the Office of the Kansas Securities Commissioner, a division of her department, joined the multistate settlement against Nexo Capital, which was accused of selling unregistered securities. “The securities laws of Kansas exist first and foremost to protect Kansas investors,” said Schmidt. “While the Department does not directly regulate cryptocurrency, we do have regulatory jurisdiction over securities products that are related to cryptocurrencies and will continue to enforce state law.” Kansas will receive nearly $425,000 for its part in the overall settlement.


Mobile Mammogram Fleet Launches in Wichita

WICHITA, Kan. (KNS) - A major hospital system in south-central Kansas is trying to boost breast cancer screening with a mobile mammography vehicle. The move comes after more women missed routine screenings during the pandemic. Breast cancer is less deadly when it’s caught early. But only 7 in 10 Kansas women over the age of 40 have had a recent screening. The new Ascension Via Christi mobile clinic vehicle will offer 3-D mammograms at job sites around Wichita, Manhattan and Pittsburg starting this summer. Officials with Ascension Via Christi oncology department say the goal is to make it easier for working women to get screened. The state health department says bringing mammograms to women can help reduce disparities. Hispanic, Black and rural Kansans are often diagnosed with breast cancer later, and are more likely to die from it.


Former Free State High School Educator Granted Probation for Sex Crimes Against 2 Teen Girls

LAWRENCE, Kan. (LJW) - A former Free State High School para-educator has been granted probation in Douglas County for sex crimes against teenage girls. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that 30-year-old Jalil Lynn Brown, of Lawrence, entered a no contest plea to one felony count of aggravated indecent liberties with a child and one felony count of sexual exploitation of a child. The two girls were between the ages of 14 and 16 at the time of the incidents. Brown originally faced additional felony counts of sexual exploitation and other charges but they were dismissed as part of a plea agreement. In addition to the dismissal of other charges, the state agreed to support a motion for departure from prison to probation. On Friday, Judge Amy Hanley said she would grant the departure to probation because the state had supported it in the plea agreement and because Brown had no prior felony convictions. Brown will also be required to register as a sex offender.


Kansas Bank Robbery Suspect Dies in Oklahoma Shootout

PERRY, Okla. (AP) — Authorities say a suspect in a Kansas bank robbery died Friday after a shootout with troopers in neighboring Oklahoma. The suspect in the Wellington, Kansas, bank heist fled south on Interstate 35 into Oklahoma where authorities had been alerted to be on the lookout. A pursuit ensued and shot were exchanged. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol said in a news release that the chase ended near the intersection of I-35 and U.S. 412 when the suspect fled on foot. The release said more shots then were exchanged and that the suspect died. The name of the suspect wasn't immediately released. No troopers were hurt. The patrol said that the shooting is under investigation.


Access to Federal Funds Varies Widely in Rural Areas

UNDATED (HPM/KPR) - Rural areas have more trouble accessing federal programs and funding. That's according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Inflation Reduction Act provides funds for clean energy, transportation and more for rural areas. The act includes funding for the largest investment in rural electrification since 1936. But the USDA says some rural communities may have trouble accessing those funds. Harvest Public Media reports that the process to access the funds is competitive and it’s more difficult for towns with fewer resources to go after the funding. Advocates for rural communities suggest that towns create a taskforce to apply for Inflation Reduction Act funding and other opportunities over the next few years. Small towns can also try to get assistance through philanthropic organizations or collaborating regionally.


As Emergency Food Aid Ends, Lawrence Food Pantry Braces for Impact

LAWRENCE, Kan. (LJW) - Another pandemic relief program has come to an end and the leader of Just Food expects the local food pantry to be profoundly affected. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress increased Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits through emergency allotments to help mitigate the country’s hunger crisis. But in Kansas and other states, SNAP benefits — formerly known as food stamps — are reverting back to their pre-pandemic levels. The effects will be significant, Just Food Director Brett Hartford told the Lawrence Journal-World and the food bank is already bracing itself. “The pandemic was daunting on its own,” Hartford said. “Now, this directly affects the community in the way that we are tasked with meeting their needs. We’re expecting it to be bad, honestly.” Using a worst-case scenario, Hartford said the community was looking at upward of $1 million less in spending power at the grocery store as extra benefits cease.

Just Food currently spends about $40,000 per month on food purchases, and Hartford said leadership was expecting that wouldn’t be enough to bridge the gap. That monthly cost is going to rise by 20%, to about $50,000, because of the SNAP change. That all comes as the food bank is already seeing a significant number of visitors, including 350 new first-time visitors in January and 392 in February. In total, Just Food saw nearly 10,000 different individuals visit during those two months, and Hartford said he expected visitor numbers to increase even further.


Kansas Board of Regents Approves KU Criminal Justice Degree

TOPEKA (KNS) – The Kansas Board of Regents has approved a new criminal justice degree at the University of Kansas, despite concerns about duplicating programs at other state schools. Wichita State University and Fort Hays State University both opposed the move, saying the state doesn’t need another criminal justice program to compete with the programs they already offer. But the Regents approved the measure and KU’s program will be available online and at the university’s Edwards Campus in Overland Park. University of Kansas Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer says duplication isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “There’s also duplication based on need, and there’s certainly market data to show that there’s a great need and there’s a lot of support for this,” Bichelmeyer said. The Regents approved a new criminal justice program at Kansas State earlier this year. All six of the state’s major universities now offer four-year degrees in criminal justice.


This summary of area news is curated by KPR news staffers, including J. Schafer, Laura Lorson, Tom Parkinson and Kaye McIntyre. Our headlines are generally posted by 10 am weekdays and updated throughout the day. These ad-free headlines are made possible by KPR members. Become one today. And follow KPR News on Twitter.