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Friday, July 25, 2014

State audit: Save millions via school consolidation

BY JEANNINE KORANDA
Eagle Topeka bureau

TOPEKA — A legislative audit suggested Monday that Kansas could save between $15 million and $129 million by consolidating school districts, closing schools and cutting staff.

The audit suggested two options. The first would combine districts that had fewer than 400 students or that encompassed less than 200 square miles. That would reduce the number of districts from 293 to 266, close 50 schools and eliminate 230 teachers and administrators.

The second option would combine districts with fewer than 1,600 students. That option would reduce the state's districts to 152, close 304 schools and eliminate 1,532 teachers and administrators.

School districts in Kansas now range from West Solomon Valley in northwest Kansas with 39 students to Wichita with 49,744 students.

Most of the savings for Kansas would come from the state making fewer payments for low-enrollment districts, the audit said. Schools with lower enrollment get additional state money.

The moves would not come without costs. Bigger districts would mean more students would have to be transported to school —

between 900 and 7,000 additional students would need to be bused to school.

Consolidation also would shift more costs from the state to local districts, the audit noted. "Under both scenarios, many districts would lose more money in state funding than they save by reducing their operating expenditures," the audit noted.

Lawmakers have not forced schools to consolidate since the 1960s, when the state went from more than 1,000 school districts to just over 300.

Kansas now allows school districts to consolidate voluntarily, and more than 25 have done so since 2002.

The audit did not recommend consolidation; it merely presented options for consolidation.

Opponents of forced consolidation point to lingering resentment from the 1960s consolidations and the fact that the state would not see any savings for years. But some lawmakers are still interested in the idea.

Kansas faces at least a $400 million shortfall for the fiscal year 2011 budget, which starts July 1. Public education takes up more than half of state spending.

Sen. Terry Bruce, chairman of the Legislative Post Audit Committee, said the audit's information was helpful but noted that the political difficult of forcing districts to merge.

"We're just not going to see a huge consolidation effort that we saw in the 1960s," said Bruce, R-Hutchinson.

He said he planned to meet with the leaders of other legislative committees to discuss the recommendations, adding that more incentives for voluntary consolidation were worth pursuing.

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

After the legislative post audit meeting on Monday, Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner of fiscal and administrative services for the state's Department of Education, noted that the audit did not take into account what parents want for their local school districts.

Making a blanket decision for all the state's school districts is "very, very difficult," he said.

Dennis said he didn't see anything in the audit that surprised him or much that was different from the 2001 study.

Contributing: Associated Press

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