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School boards group: Kansas schools already forced to improve efficiency

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, at 6:14 p.m.

— – A school boards group formed in response to Gov. Sam Brownback’s school efficiency task force said Friday that reductions in school funding and the recession have already forced schools to be more efficient.

A report by the nonprofit Kansas Association of School Board’s efficiency group said that, while enrollment has increased, the state has fewer school districts, school buildings, superintendents and principals than it did 10 years ago. Meanwhile, they have added nearly 1,000 teachers and other positions.

“Kansans today are spending about the same share of income on K-12 education as their parents and grandparents, but getting much higher levels of educational achievement,” the report says.

“While we realize and acknowledge the fact we need to do better, we should also acknowledge the fact we have done a great deal,” said Jim Freeman, treasurer of the Andover School Board and a member of the school boards task force.

The report, presented to Brownback’s task force, is an attempt to show that schools have been working on being more efficient at a time when Brownback’s administration has been hunting for ways to eliminate perceived inefficiencies and increase fourth-grade reading levels.

It comes as lawmakers await the outcome of a school finance lawsuit, and it also comes as Democrats, moderate Republicans and conservative Republicans are all trying to sell the public on their views of how the state funds schools.

Democrats have generally criticized Brownback for not restoring cuts made by Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson during the recession. Moderate Republicans have sought to limit cuts or modestly increase funding. And many conservatives are pushing for deeper analysis aimed at rooting out perceived inefficiencies and dedicating a greater percentage of spending in classrooms.

The school board’s task force wants to get rid of a rule that requires 65 percent of school spending to be spent on classroom instruction. Health insurance benefits, seniority of everyone from teachers to janitors and other factors make it difficult to define how much is actually spent on instruction, Freeman said.

Things such as utilities, which are necessary for classroom instruction, aren’t counted as instructional spending, he said.

Brownback has used the 65 percent line and schools failure to reach it as a sign that schools need to become more efficient to produce better outcomes.

Ken Willard, chairman of the governor’s task force, said he hasn’t been surprised to hear about moves school districts are taking to become more efficient.

The task force aims to identify the smart things districts are doing, bring them to light, and use them in other districts or statewide, Willard said.

And the task force is also looking for other opportunities, he said.

“We’re just trying to identify things that have been missed,” he said.

Willard said he would like to see schools consider a centralized data system where they could have a common place to input teacher license information, professional development achievements and a large range of other data schools have to collect.

But he said he still has an open mind as the task force tries to prepare recommendations to the Legislature by January.

Task force members also discussed giving principals more authority to evaluate tenured teachers, using more efficient utilities, consolidating bulk purchases across districts, reducing the need to teach for specific tests and finding new ways to measure how spending and performance are related.

Several on the task force also said they acknowledge that they can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach because there are too many differences between school districts, and they also said finding efficiencies doesn’t necessarily mean cuts.

Tim Witsman, a member of the governor’s task force and president of the Wichita Independent Business Association, said the increasing diversity of schools, especially in Wichita, should be considered.

But he said schools don’t have competition and don’t operate the way businesses do.

“I think there are inefficiencies,” he said.

Witsman said he likes the conversation generated by the efficiency task force. He said that too often lawmakers and school officials get caught up in frustrating conversations and lack the in-depth understanding of schools.

He said too many people think they know what to do without really understanding it.

“They’ve been to one cocktail party and they know how to change education,” he said.

Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 785-296-3006 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

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