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Friday, April 18, 2014

Can reducing the number of school districts solve state budget woes?

BY JEANNINE KORANDA
The Wichita Eagle

TOPEKA — Kansas has 293 school districts ranging in size from West Solomon Valley in northwest Kansas with 39 students to Wichita with 49,744 students.

With state funds dwindling and more budget cuts looming, some lawmakers are starting to discuss whether some of those districts should combine to help save money.

"School consolidation has been on the minds of legislators and all people associated with policy making for quite some time because the current number of districts and the number of students we have doesn't make sense," said Rep. Jason Watkins, R-Wichita, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

There is no estimate of how much a consolidation plan could save Kansas. Opponents warn that cutting school districts is unlikely to save any money for three or four years and could cause lingering resentment.

But with public education absorbing 52 percent of the state budget, potential hurt feelings and maintaining the status quo might not be enough to justify the current structure.

"We are spending a tremendous amount of money on an antiquated system that is probably costing a lot of money," Watkins said. "We have got to become more efficient."

The issue was last studied in 2001 when a Denver consulting group suggested the state consolidate several districts that spent a lot of money on students but had low test scores.

School districts are paying attention to the discussions and, as their budgets shrink, are looking at ways to save money — including sharing some services and teachers with other districts, said Deborah Hamm, superintendent for the Oxford school district, south of Wichita.

The mostly rural district, which encompasses 136 square miles and has about 340 students, was one of 20 districts the 2001 consultant's report suggested could consolidate to save the state money. It also identified Belle Plaine, Caldwell, Udall and South Haven as targets for consolidation.

"I think if people did not want to have a community school, then we already would not have one," Hamm said.

Hamm was not superintendent of Oxford the last time district consolidation was discussed, but she has been told that the community rallied to preserve its school district, holding town hall meetings and protesting to lawmakers.

More than just administrative cuts

How many and which districts could be consolidated hasn't been determined, and those parameters could change depending on what plan is used, said Andy Tompkins, former Kansas education commissioner and dean of the College of Education at Pittsburg State University.

In October, Tompkins briefed a House budget committee about school consolidations and the studies that have been done in Kansas.

He warned the committee that savings would not be immediate and just eliminating some superintendents and other staff wasn't going to be enough.

"If you are really serious about this, you are going to having to be doing more than just administrative (cuts)," he said later during a phone interview. "You are going to have to decide if you are going to close schools."

Tompkins also said the idea needed more study on everything from how big a district should be to how long a student should ride a bus to get to school.

"The big policy issue is, 'Do we really want to change the policy?' " he said.

'Animosity and bitterness'

The last time lawmakers forced schools to consolidate was in the 1960s, when the state went from more than 1,000 schools districts to just over 300.

"There is still animosity and bitterness about it," said Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

Schodorf questions what the savings would amount to and at what cost to educating children.

She advocates continuing to allow schools districts to merge voluntarily, leaving the decision to communities.

Since 2002, 25 school districts have voluntarily merged into 11. Eight more districts in western and north-central Kansas are considering consolidation, said Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner of fiscal and administrative services for the state's Department of Education.

"If the local people make the decision and they decide it is the right thing for their kids, it is a much more peaceful thing rather than it is a mandate from the state or federal government," he said.

While no legislation has been introduced dealing with school consolidation, it is a serious discussion, Watkins said. The more serious the budget shortfalls become, the more serious the consolidation discussions become.

Watkins said he supports looking at the idea of consolidation but didn't say he would introduce legislation.

"I don't think the people of Kansas buy into the argument that this is the way we have always done it so we have to keep doing it," he said.

Reach Jeannine Koranda at 785-296-3006 or jkoranda@wichitaeagle.com.

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