In the battle over school funding, moderate Johnson County Republicans say Mary Pilcher Cook is their worst teachers' pest.

Mary Quite Contrary 

In the battle over school funding, moderate Johnson County Republicans say Mary Pilcher Cook is their worst teachers' pest.

Mary Pilcher Cook knocks on another front door. This white ranch house on the residential stretch of Johnson Drive west of I-35 is owned by Republicans. Cook is a Republican who represents them in the Kansas Statehouse. Still, she can't be sure of her reception.

It could go either way.

Two children peer through the storm door at the strange car parked in the gravel driveway. Cook works up a smile as the door opens. She extends a hand to the young blond woman who answers and then to the woman's husband, John, who joins them on the front steps.

Despite what her critics claim, Cook says, she does not hate public schools. Nor were the state's budget problems this spring as bad as the governor said. The state didn't need to raise taxes to keep murderers behind bars, to pay social workers to look after disabled people or to hire kindergarten teachers.

John nods his head. He had followed the debate.

"At first I thought, 'We need to do what we need to do,'" he says. But the more he learned about the state's budget, the more he questioned the need for more taxes.

Cook can relax. She has found some of her true believers.

While she's asking for their nod in the August 6 primary, she can look them in the eye and say she didn't vote for a single tax increase. She won't have to explain her stubborn "no" vote, which nearly led their treasured Shawnee Mission school district to cut teachers and programs next year.

Cook is proud of that "no" vote. But it enraged members of her own party, who have planted protest signs in yards throughout Cook's neighborhood.

"Elect Candidates Who Will Fund our Public Schools," read the blue-and-red posters stuck in lush green lawns.

They might as well say: "Screw Mary Pilcher Cook."

Not here. John says he'd be happy to put one of her signs in his front yard. He and his family would be proud to support the woman who is too conservative for some conservatives.

Mary Pilcher Cook just finished her first term as a member of the Kansas House of Representatives, driving to Topeka every weekday on behalf of 19,000 of her neighbors, the residents of the shabby duplexes along Johnson Drive as well as the shake-shingled minimansions along Widmer in northeastern Shawnee. She was tagged as a conservative from the day she drove her Mitsubishi 3000GT with its anti-abortion bumper stickers into the Capitol parking lot.

A lifelong resident of Shawnee, Cook spent ten years in an abusive marriage before escaping in 1984 with three kids and a job that paid $13,000 a year. She went to school at Avila, studying computer science and eventually earning her MBA there while working two jobs.

She met and married her current husband and went to work for a commodity news service now owned by Reuters Financial.

Cook also worked as a campaign volunteer for Phill Kline, who preceded her in the Statehouse. When Kline decided to run for U.S. Congress two years ago, Cook looked for a successor who would uphold his conservative ideals. "I was like, 'Phill, surely you've got someone to take your place,'" she remembers.

Kline didn't. Cook decided to run for the seat herself, though the timing wasn't particularly good. She still had a sixteen-year-old daughter at home, and her husband had just lost his job. (He now runs a mobile furniture-repair business out of their house.)

With Kline's support, Cook won the seat, taking her anti-abortion passion to Topeka. She says her feelings have been shaped by her own experience. Cook's eldest daughter got pregnant as a teen-ager. "She was terrified to come talk to me about it. We didn't have the best relationship," Cook says. When mother and daughter finally did talk, Cook's daughter said she'd been advised to end the pregnancy. "She told me every one of her friends told her to get an abortion." Cook's daughter has since married the father of her child.

Cook's time in Topeka has been a fit of social conservatism and anti-tax fervor. She cosponsored bills to put minimum-age requirements on common-law marriages, to keep property taxes low, to require parental notification for teen-agers seeking abortions and to cap state spending. She asked for a resolution directing Kansas Attorney General Carla Stovall to investigate the constitutionality of declaring that life begins at conception and another one urging Dennis Moore, Sam Brownback and the other members of the state's Congressional delegation to support President Bush's tax cuts.

In the process, Cook earned a zero rating by the Mainstream Coalition, a group of mainly middle-of-the-road Republicans who organized nine years ago to combat the growing Christian conservative voice in Kansas politics. The members of the group, which champions public schools and separation of church and state, rated politicians on ten of their votes (six of them related to abortion) the last session. Cook's was the only zero rating. Her Shawnee neighbor, moderate Republican Representative Lisa Benlon, received a 100 percent rating, voting Mainstream's way on all ten initiatives.

But Cook's efforts have been largely symbolic. Few of her bills passed the House, and those that did were killed by the Senate.

Cook made her strongest claim to being the state's most conservative legislator on May 18, at the end of the session. Her conservative brethren from Johnson County -- Judy Morrison, Ray Merrick, Karen DiVita and Patricia Lightner -- all caved in to a $700 million deficit -- or to the fact that it was 4 a.m. on a Saturday -- and finally voted for new taxes to fund the budget.

Cook watched them all compromise. Then she voted no.

"That is a person of convictions. There's a lot to be said for that," says Robert Tomlinson, a moderate Republican state representative from Roeland Park who agrees with Cook on "virtually nothing."

Johnson County's six public school districts have become synonymous with high-dollar buildings and overachieving students. It's a place where high schools sit on sprawling campuses with cavernous gyms and fiber-optic cable networks, where juniors gloat over their National Merit scholarships and seniors pack for the Ivy Leagues.

Over the decades, as schools in Kansas City, Missouri, have suffered the indignities of deterioration and court-ordered desegregation, Johnson County's suburbs provided refuge for young parents. Developers helped make a place for them, paving cul-de-sacs and putting up homes and malls to meet demand. And Johnson County's schools luxuriated in the growing pool of property taxes, building more schools and hiring more teachers.

Meanwhile, school districts in other parts of the state were making do with property taxes from lonesome Wal-Marts and desolate Main Streets instead of cash generators like Oak Park Mall and Corporate Woods. Even as the state helped the poorer districts, the disparity grew. By 1990, some people in the state were paying as much as six times the property tax rate of their counterparts in Johnson County. That's when the courts stepped in. After a group of poor districts filed a lawsuit alleging the state's formula for school funding was unfair, state legislators agreed to rework the system in 1992. They equalized property taxes and the amount each district could spend per student, funneling all the money through Topeka.

Each year, the legislature renegotiates that per-student amount. It has risen over the last decade, but not enough to keep up with expenses. In 1992, the districts received a base amount of $3,600 a student; last year it was just $3,870. Had the amount followed inflation, it would have been $4,544. On top of that, the schools get a subsidy for each student whose first language is not English, each student who lives more than 2.5 miles from school and each student with other special needs. The school districts have further supplemented their income with a layered cake of extra funding sources, including one that allows them to bulk up their state aid by an extra 25 percent from local property taxes.

But the schools have run out of math tricks and now find themselves struggling to pay the bills. The Shawnee Mission schools, once the envy of the state, are being hit particularly hard. The district covers the towns in the northeast corner of Johnson County within the I-435 loop. There, the quiet streets that once drew young families are now filled with empty-nesters. The number of students enrolled in the Shawnee Mission district drops every year by 300 or 400. As students leave, state funding wanes.

Shawnee Mission administrators are horrified by the idea of further state cuts. But last December, that's what Governor Bill Graves told them would happen if legislators couldn't find a way to make the budget work. Graves' initial budget included cuts of $158 per pupil -- but he said he never intended it to be approved. If the legislature didn't find a way to put the school money back, he told legislators, he wouldn't sign it.

Conservative Republicans accused Graves of using scare tactics to pressure them to pass new taxes.

"It caused a panic," says Karen DiVita, a conservative Overland Park representative. "It created so much discord at the Statehouse it made it very difficult for the House and Senate to effectively manage our financial responsibilities."

Graves' State of the State address in January added depression to the panic. After several years of surpluses, the state economy was tanking -- it was $426 million in the red. Taxmen had rounded up little from laid-off Sprint and Boeing employees. Investors who had seen their tech stocks evaporate had no capital gains to declare. Terrorist attacks had killed hopes for a quick recovery.

Graves had proposed $228 million in tax increases (including a 65-cents-a-pack cigarette tax, a quarter-cent state sales-tax hike to 5.15 percent and another penny a gallon on gasoline). But he had also found a way to give the schools another $20 a pupil. Public schools eat up less than a quarter of the state's $10 billion annual budget, but they're one of the few places the governor and legislature have options. (The state can't touch federal money dedicated, for example, to Medicaid recipients or highways.)

Legislators had an ugly choice. If they left public schools alone, they could hack away at colleges or slice into social services. Steering clear of those institutions meant cutting back on prison security or kicking old people out of nursing homes.

The debate mobilized education officials, who in April went public with their own projected budgets. The Kansas National Education Association estimated that 630 teachers across the state would have to be fired; sixty of those would come from Shawnee Mission schools. Shawnee Mission officials said they'd be cutting two principals, all elementary school counselors and nine nurses districtwide. Unable even to contemplate a $303-a-student cut that had been proposed earlier, school advocates calculated their numbers using the governor's $20-a-student increase.

The discussion awoke an emotional group of Shawnee Mission parents who feared playground scrapes would go unbandaged. A group of parents whose children attended Belinder Elementary School raised more than $72,000 to keep a full-time nurse, a part-time counselor and a foreign-language teacher. Parents from Prairie, Brookwood, Briarwood and Westwood View elementary schools followed suit with campaigns of their own.

Mary Pilcher Cook was already well aware of their feelings. Back in February, she'd started receiving letters from seventh graders.

They'd written to their elected representative as an assignment for a class at Hocker Grove Middle School. But based on the letters' similar content, their social-studies teacher might as well have been giving them a lesson in dictation.

"This week the topic in social studies has changed from famous dead people to politicians who think it's alright [sic] to take more money from my school," wrote one girl. "A school which at the time is concerned w/ the price of paper or in nicer turms [sic] school funding, and let me ask you are you one of them?"

Another future voter knew the answer: "I am aware how strongly opposed you are to funding schools."

Most of the writers had real experiences to help make their case:

"I am concerned about not have [sic] full-time nurses. One time I cut myself and it was bleeding very badly. What would I have done if the nurse wasn't there?"

The letters didn't change Cook's mind. They pissed her off. District policy allows teachers to ask students to write letters to their elected officials as a class assignment, but they can't tell their students what to write. The teacher in this case was told to make sure it didn't happen again.

The children weren't the only ones who believed Cook was a teachers' pest.

Kathy Cook has been a critic of the representative who shares her surname since spring 2001. Back then, Kathy Cook and her fellow PTA members at Ray Marsh Elementary School were involved in a letter-writing campaign to push for more money for education. Kathy Cook had a kindergartner at the school.

Kathy Cook says Representative Cook didn't respond to the letters individually. Instead, Mary Pilcher Cook cranked out an opinion piece for the Shawnee Journal Herald that included a poke at the worried parents. "I'm concerned that too many have taken a dim view without accurate information," she wrote.

"I didn't appreciate being called 'dim-viewed,'" Kathy Cook says. She vowed to make Cook a one-term representative.

She found an ally one day while picking up her son at Ray Marsh. Outside on the sidewalk was Dave Raffel, carrying a hand-lettered sign that spoke to Kathy Cook's soul: "Mary Pilcher Cook is starving our S.M. schools."

Raffel was a born-again activist. He attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. Despite the decade, he didn't do drugs. Instead he walked on picket lines, staged sit-ins and threw punches at Arabs and socialists, calling himself a Jewish activist. His protests earned him a few trips to jail.

Then he got married, began working and started a family. In 1987, his job brought him to Kansas City. His new colleagues were quick with one piece of advice: "You've got a family. You've got to move to Johnson County because that's where the best schools are."

Raffel's youthful sense of outrage returned three summers ago when the Kansas Board of Education voted to de-emphasize evolution in its statewide testing. "I got reawakened -- or awakened," he says.

Raffel formed a group called Save Our Schools in the fall of 1999 and used it to campaign against the board members who had supported the change in science standards. The group rented a billboard on northbound Interstate 35 at Cambridge Circle. It depicted a Bible with the words, "Science textbook in Kansas public schools. No!!! Vote Aug. 1, 2000."

Raffel and Kathy Cook have since formed Kansas Families United for Public Education. The group's mission is posted on its Web site: "We want the Governor, members of the Kansas House of Representatives and the Kansas Senate, and candidates for all of those offices to recognize that education is the #1 priority of Kansas voters!"

They admit their "political crosshairs" are on Mary Pilcher Cook, whose district includes both of their houses. "We have to clean up our own back yard before we can clean up any one else's back yard," Raffel admits.

Toward that end, they picketed the corner of Nieman Road and Johnson Drive each Friday afternoon during the heated budget debate in March. At the intersection, in front of Shawnee City Hall and across from the Hartman & Son hardware store, they toted Raffel's posters calling for Cook's head.

And since then, their most visible tools have been 3,000 yard signs, an idea Raffel stole from Mobile, Alabama. He'd been passing through the town in March on his way to a Florida vacation when he noticed billboards and yard signs touting an idea rather than a candidate: "Elect candidates who will fund our public education. Alabama Education Association."

For her part, Kathy Cook helped host a candidate debate April 15 between Mary Pilcher Cook and her opponent, Cindy Neighbor.

Mary Pilcher Cook says she didn't know the event was to be a debate until just a few days before. By then, she had alerted the conservative cavalry, the men of Kansas Legislative Education and Research, a nongovernmental organization that helps guide the votes of fifty conservative state legislators. Despite Cook's repeated attempts to introduce them, a moderator from the League of Women Voters banned the KLEAR men from speaking on Cook's behalf. And the debate itself set off a volley of letters in the Shawnee Journal Herald between Sheila Wodtke, Cook's campaign manager, and Peggy Werle, Ray Marsh PTA president.

Wodtke charged that Cindy Neighbor's campaign literature had been prominently displayed, that League of Women Voters moderator Dolores Furtado had taken to debating Cook herself and that questions from the audience were selected to favor Neighbor. Wodtke called the debate attendees "a gaggle of 'tax me more' education connoisseurs."

Others stepped up to defend Cook, too, including a newly formed group called Citizens for Education and a Strong Economy.

President Kevin Drew says he was drawn into the fray by the attacks on Mary Pilcher Cook. He says she is being targeted because she won't play the games of the other state legislators. He compares her to Jimmy Stewart's character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

CEASE members staged a counter demonstration at Johnson and Nieman with posters of their own: "Honk if you do not want your taxes raised" and "Mary Pilcher Cook: saving our Kansas economy."

Drew doesn't have children of his own but says the other parents who make up CEASE are "being branded as ultraconservative, right-wing wackos."

That's the same thing Mary Pilcher Cook heard about herself in Topeka, where the budget debate had devolved into name calling before winter had ended. Some legislators wouldn't talk to each other at all, while a shouting match erupted at one Saturday morning gathering of Republicans.

Moderate Republican leaders couldn't get a budget past a strange alliance of conservative Republicans like Cook, who opposed new taxes for any reason, and Democrats who felt that the taxes being proposed would hurt low- and middle-income Kansans.

Johnson County State Senator John Vratil says the Democrats were exploiting the split in the Republican party. "We have a Republican governor, and we have Republican control of both houses of the legislature," he says. "Chaos ... can only help a Democrat."

The atmosphere worsened. In March, new numbers showed the state was not $426 million in the hole but $700 million. Job prospects for Kansans remained bleak. And in a cruel irony for the Republicans, changes in the tax rates as part of the Bush tax cut had deflated state revenues by $25 million.

In early May, legislators passed a budget that offered Graves' modest $20-a-student increase but also needed $252 million in new revenue. To make it balance, after the longest legislative session ever, they passed a $252 million tax package at 4 a.m. on a Saturday two weeks later. They had eased the new burden on smokers to only 46 cents a pack but had upped Graves' sales tax to 5.3 percent for the next two years and added another penny per gallon of gas.

"It was the last vote. The train was pulling out of the station," Vratil explains. "There would be no other alternatives presented."

On a Tuesday morning at the end of June, 200 people gathered in the ballroom of the Overland Park Marriott for a public forum on Kansas school finance. It was hosted by the influential law firm Lathrop & Gage, whose partners include moderate attorney/politicians such as Vratil and attorney general candidate David Adkins.

Among the speakers were Vratil, Adkins, Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards and David Benson, superintendent of Blue Valley schools.

Marjorie Kaplan, superintendent of Shawnee Mission schools, spoke of her district's struggles with "creeping decline" in enrollment. "We lose money," she said, "but we really don't have many options as a way to cope with that."

Kaplan said the $20-a-student increase passed by the legislature equated to about $800,000 for the district. Meanwhile health insurance costs would rise by $1.2 million next year.

Then Steve Rose of Sun Newspapers took the podium. "I think this is war," he said. "It's nothing short of war." Rose said the conservatives wanted to choke public schools in order to push school vouchers and religious education. "They believe public schools are the enemy of this country," he said.

He got a hearty endorsement from Vratil, who spoke next. "I really can't say it any better than Steve Rose said it this morning. I think he hit the nail right on the head," Vratil said.

Two nights later, Mary Pilcher Cook fought back in a lecture hall at Johnson County Community College, calling her forum "Truth in Education AND Taxes."

Cook had packed her program with legislators and speakers who saw the state's financial situation as she did. Some of them had driven a long way, she said, to fill the "information vacuum."

The lineup included small-business advocates who explained that they were being overtaxed. It included former politicians who disingenuously told the crowd of 200 that the total amount Kansas spent on education had grown by 88 percent since 1992 (that figure represents every dollar spent on education within the borders of the state -- including federal money for mandated programs and local bond money used to put up new buildings) and that school budgets were too confusing to provide any accountability. It included legislators who tallied off the expensive and unneeded projects passed during the session: a reinforced Capitol dome to support a bronze sculpture, a new jet for the governor and covered parking for legislators.

And it included state Representative Karen DiVita, who rattled off numbers to back up her complaint that Johnson County was carrying the rest of the state with its tax dollars and that teachers were overpaid. She griped that Shawnee Mission School District teachers make an average of $52,000 a year, with some math and science teachers earning as much as $62,000 a year.

Like Cook, DiVita is running for reelection. And like Cook, she is seen as an enemy to public schools. Her opponent in District 16, a triangle of Overland Park northeast of interstates 435 and 35, is the moderate Jim Yonally, a former Shawnee Mission school-district lobbyist.

The same conservative-versus-moderate struggle is going on in primaries across Johnson County. Among the moderates are Stephanie Sharp, Brad Seitter, Rob Boyer, George Kandt and Steve Baru. Their conservative adversaries are Robert Curtis, Ray Merrick, Shannan Nelson, Eric Carter and Scott Schwab.

Cook's race is a rematch from two years ago against Cindy Neighbor, who, more than any other candidate, embodies the education establishment.

Neighbor has spent five years on the Shawnee Mission school board. She is president of the Kansas Association of School Boards and has lobbied the state hard for more money for schools.

She has logged nine years as a district employee as well, helping autistic preschoolers at Cherokee Elementary and working as a teachers' aid at Hocker Grove Elementary, as a secretary at Rising Star and as a help-desk staffer at the Indian Creek Technology Center. She retired a year ago from a private-sector job managing eight medical clinics in Johnson, Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties.

All four of her children attended Shawnee Mission schools, and in a few years her two grandchildren will, too.

As a school board member, Neighbor knows firsthand how tightly run those schools are. Faced with Shawnee Mission's dwindling budget, board members have been forced to make $7.5 million in cuts over the past two years and another $8.4 million for next year.

For next year, they've eliminated all elementary-school counselors, three principals, an assistant to the superintendent and the media-services director. If the 2003-2004 school year requires the same cost cutting, librarians could be next.

"We're getting into programs and services that affect children," Neighbor says.

Neighbor lost against Mary Pilcher Cook two years ago, but the returns -- at least in precincts with a high voter turnout -- were encouraging enough for Neighbor to try again this time.

Three weeks after the legislative session ended, Shawnee residents and probably a few fun-loving neighbors from Lenexa and Merriam gathered near the site of the Mary Pilcher Cook picket duels for the Old Shawnee Days festival. Scheduled events included a performance by the remnants of the Electric Light Orchestra, alligator wrestling by Kachunga and the annual parade.

A shortage of donated cars had parade organizers scrambling to find showy transportation for town notables. Someone thought of putting Shawnee's two representatives in the same vehicle -- an idea that was quickly shot down by the moderate Republican Lisa Benlon, who refused to share a ride with her conservative cohort.

Neighbor marched and distributed fliers touting the "strong voice" she intended to raise in Topeka.

In the middle of the procession, about 25 members of Kansas Families United for Public Education handed out glossy fliers decrying the "draconian cuts" faced by school districts across the state. The leaflets didn't mention Mary Pilcher Cook by name, but Kathy Cook equated their role in the parade to an invasion. "We're walking past her church," she remembers. "We're in her territory."

Mary Pilcher Cook had her eldest daughter's five-year-old son in tow. He handed out candy from his green plastic wagon while Cook's fliers defended her "voice of integrity and reason for Shawnee families."

Cook's new flier de-emphasized her views on abortion, an important part of her platform two years ago. But Cook's Web site (its address was listed on the flier) still champions her "pro woman and pro-life" stance. It also states that she is concerned about an emotional and psychological disorder known as post-abortion syndrome."

In fact, abortion politics is what got the Johnson County Republicans where they are today.

The split between moderates and conservatives in the party goes back a decade. In the early 1990s, a group called Kansans for Life grew tired of pushing its anti-abortion agenda from the sidelines. Its members didn't just want to get in the game -- they wanted to rule the state.

They started by taking over their own neighborhoods. First they won a majority of the lowly precinct committee positions, electing the people who help supervise the Republican primaries and choose the delegates who in turn choose the state party chair. (Their anointed chair was David Miller, who chose to run against his fellow Republican, the incumbent Bill Graves, for governor in 1998.) They also took advantage of a highly motivated group of anti-abortion voters who showed up for elections.

Those early precinct chairs were political newcomers who cared about a single issue: abortion. Their campaign strategy worked.

Now the party's moderates are stealing that single-issue tactic. They aren't concerned with a candidate's stand on any of the issues but one: public education.

The responsibility for finding those candidates in Johnson County has fallen to former state Representative. Steve Cloud, who helped establish a group called Johnson County Republicans for Education. Through the group, he will endorse candidates in the August 6 Republican primary. Perhaps more important, he's been working behind the scenes to recruit and support candidates.

His involvement at this early stage violates a long-held philosophy that party leaders should stay out of primary politics until the primaries are over and they can help the winner defeat the other party's candidate in the general election.

Cloud, who declined to comment for this story, is also a member of the national party leadership.

"He's a Republican committee man. He shouldn't be taking sides -- one Republican against another -- but he has been," says Caroline McKnight, executive director of Mainstream, who is grateful for Cloud's involvement.

Vratil also supports Cloud's efforts. "Steve Cloud and a few others ... were instrumental in regaining control of the Johnson County Republican Party [from the conservatives]," he says. "Steve is one of the leaders of this community who have realized the August primary election is absolutely critical not only to the fate of public education in this state but to the prosperity of Johnson County."

Brad Seitter of Stillwell is one of the candidates Cloud is helping.

"The reason why [Johnson County] was able to grow ... was because of the tremendous schools," says Seitter, the 31-year-old executive producer of WDAF Channel 4's Chiefs Game Day program. "The emphasis of Johnson County was on public education. You start to take away from this, and you erode why people come here."

Seitter is a political novice. Early in his exploration of a run for state representative, party insiders directed him to Cloud. He says he was told bluntly, "You win him and his group, then you're on your way."

Seitter met with Cloud and responded to questions about a broad range of issues. Seitter says he was open about the fact that he's anti-abortion -- which should have branded him a conservative. He says he was told it didn't matter. He remembers Cloud saying, "I want to know what your stance is on pro-life, but I don't care."

Cloud wrote him a $500 check, the maximum donation allowed, and referred him to campaign manager Robert McKnight. With the help of Cloud and McKnight, Seitter has boiled his politics down to a simple message: He's pro-education.

Cloud's involvement is a sign of how frightened the moderates have become. Until recently, they were able to rely on the fact that, at the highest levels, moderates remained in control of Kansas. When all else failed and the anti-abortion bills were piling up, they could count on a little preemptive strong-arming from Senate President Dick Bond or a veto from Governor Graves.

The moderates' lingering complacency received a shock three years ago during the evolution controversy, and the recent legislative session sounded more alarms. Robert Tomlinson, the moderate Republican representative from Roeland Park, says he's seen evolution at work in the conservative branch of his party since he first took office in 1993.

Nine years ago, he says, the "conservative" label simply applied to elected officials who were anti-abortion. Then they had to be anti-abortion and pro-gun. "Then pro-life, pro-gun and anti-tax," he says. "Ultimately it became pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax, anti-school."

In Johnson County Republican politics, being anti-abortion is one thing. Taking money away from schools is quite another.

The single-issue focus from the 1990s backfired on parents who abhorred abortion but are now stuck with the anti-tax Puritans they helped elect -- who now refuse to raise taxes even to fund schools.

It might end up being a hard lesson for moderates as they try to ride public-school funding to a political majority.

"We may endorse some candidates who I personally don't agree with in the social aspects," says Kathy Cook. "I just happen to think this election is a one-issue election. If we choose some candidates who fail us on some social issues I guess we'll revisit it on another front."

But the front is shifting all the time, and it's getting harder to tell who's who.

On July 13, the Cook camp began distributing its subversive new signs. Stapled to the bottom is one of the signs distributed by her loudest critics: "Elect Candidates Who Will Fund our Public Schools." Mary Pilcher Cook's name is bold across the top.

"I voted to fund public education.... What I didn't vote for was to increase taxes," Cook says, explaining the sneaky trick. She did vote for a budget that would have promised a $10-a-student increase. She just never voted to fund it. "If this sign really means 'increase our taxes,' that's what they should say. It's really exposing their covert actions."

But Mary Pilcher Cook's actions were covert, too.

Kathy Cook is furious. "When I asked [Mary Pilcher Cook] to show me proof that these yard signs were not the many that have been stolen in the last week, she provided me with a copy of a check from a [Shawnee resident] who obtained fifty yard signs for his donation of $150 to our organization," she said in a statement on July 15.

"This is out-and-out deception," she adds. "She is fully aware that we do not endorse her as the candidate."

Mary Pilcher Cook admits one of her supporters bought the opposition's signs.

But it may not matter whether the pro-education candidates win. Based on the latest projections, even the final budget is out of balance. The legislature will have no choice but to cut school funding.

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