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Districts
to merge? Legislature could force schools to consolidate

News editor

Five county school districts could become one in 2017 if a bill in the Kansas legislature proposing statewide consolidations becomes law.

House Bill 2504 would save the state $170 million over 10 years if districts in counties with under 10,000 students were combined into single countywide districts, proponents claim. Kansas Association of School Boards estimated the state would drop from 286 districts to 132 under the plan.

County superintendents beg to differ about the plan saving money.

“School consolidation in whatever form it takes, does not result in significant savings for Kansas,” USD 410 Superintendent Steve Noble said.

Peabody-Burns Superintendent Ron Traxson questioned the need for such a change.

“A lot of legislators look at 50 percent of the state budget going to education,” he said. “It’s always been that way. It’s always taken that amount, and all of a sudden it’s too much?”

The proposed plan targets reducing administrative costs by merging districts into a single “realigned school district” with one superintendent and one administrative office for the county. The realigned district would take ownership of all school buildings, property, and equipment, and what wouldn’t be needed would be transferred to the state for sale.

The bill does not propose closing any schools, Noble said.

USD 408 Superintendent Lee Leiker said he believed it would be impossible for any county district office to take on the work of four others, and that projected savings wouldn’t be realized.

“The central office staff at Marion could not take on the business affairs of five districts,” he said. “None of us have extra people in our district offices. We haven’t hired additional people, we’ve taken on additional duties to cover. If you consolidate the five district offices into one, it will take more personnel to do that work.”

What would happen to district boards of education under this plan is unclear.

“There is absolutely nothing in this bill that states how local school boards would be handled,” Goessel Superintendent John Fast said. “Does it mean a superintendent has to work with one board or five?”

Traxson likewise was uncertain.

“Do you have five boards and one superintendent? That’s nearly impossible,” he said.

Money, not education

Noble said the bill does nothing to consider the educational needs of students.

“What’s lost in this discussion is the impact on kids,” he said. “I think that’s important. All we’re talking about is how much money it will save us. We have to be careful when we have a consolidation discussion that’s not focused on the best interests of kids.”

Centre Superintendent Susan Beeson said the plan could have negative effects on some children.

“It’s almost as if dollars are more important than children in this state,” she said. “I think the financial cost for students who may not be successful or fall through the cracks could be greater than the cost savings any one superintendent could create.”

Beeson said county districts have improved education despite past budget cuts through collaborative programs such as the TEEN learning network and special education cooperative.

“The administrations in our five districts have created the spirit of partnership,” she said. “I am proud to be an administrator of a district in Marion County because there is such a commitment to collaboration and seeing that kids are first.”

Fast noted that the legislature paid $2.7 million for an efficiency study of state government, and that consolidation was not among the cost saving measures recommended. He suggested that the consolidation proposal masks a bigger financial problem.

“The real issue is that they don’t have a good plan for funding schools yet,” he said. “This may be a distraction over the bigger issue of funding schools, no matter what size.”

Leiker said the push to cut funding for public education could be linked to the legislature’s attempt to divert money and support to private education.

“They’re putting more money into vouchers and to private schools,” he said. “They’re promoting private education and virtual education in spite of public education.”

Traxson said Gov. Sam Brownback has supported such a shift.

“He wants to give more money to go into private schooling,” he said. “Is this really what’s about doing best for public schools, or is it about undermining public schools?”

Community impact

While acknowledging schools won’t close if HB 2504 passes and realignment proceeds, superintendents agreed that long-term effects could be serious for some areas of the county.

“The schools in many of our communities are the lifeblood of those communities, particularly in rural Kansas,” Noble said.

Past consolidations in Marion County eventually led to some schools being closed and children bussed to other towns. Closures could have far-reaching effects.

“Any effort to take a school out of our communities will further the cause of having those communities deteriorate to the point commerce isn’t happening,” Noble said. “Population will dwindle even more rapidly.”

Traxson agreed.

“In most all cases, it’s going to be bad for the smaller communities,” he said. “They’re wanting to save money for the cost of education, but what’s that going to do to the economic stability of smaller communities throughout the state?”

Beeson said local schools are part of local traditions and community identities.

“Those are things we look to that we share over time, and when those are gone you take away a sense of history, a sense of ownership,” she said. “There’s a possibility of creating strife between communities. People at the legislative or government levels honestly don’t have insight into these factors.”

While the idea of mass consolidations has been floated around Topeka in past legislative sessions, Leiker said HB 2504 is getting more serious attention because it has a timeline attached to it.

Several superintendents agreed that consolidation of districts is a decision that should be made at a local level according to community need.

“It has to happen on your own terms,” Traxson said. “If you make that decision it’s a lot easier to live with.”

Traxson said this and other bills are taking local control away from communities and sending public education in the wrong direction.

“Kansas has always been a conservative state, but it’s never been conservative with education,” he said. “We’ve lost the concept of doing what’s right verses whatever the leaders of the parties have said.”

Last modified Feb. 3, 2016

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