The chair of the House Education Committee and associations representing school boards and educators leapt to the defense of the state’s school finance chief Thursday, a day after legislative leaders demanded his suspension in a dispute over school bus spending.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach weighed in on the other side, with a statement supporting Senate President Susan Wagle and House Speaker Ron Ryckman in their call for an investigation of Deputy Commissioner of Education Dale Dennis and what Kobach called “a culture of corruption in Topeka.”
The state Board of Education scheduled a special meeting for Friday in Topeka “for the purpose of discussing personnel matters of non-elected personnel.”
Those actions come the day after Wagle and Ryckman called in a letter for a forensic audit of school bus spending and suspension of Dennis until the investigation is finished.
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Dennis gets respect
Clay Aurand, R-Belleville and chairman of the House Education Committee, said in a statement that he does believe bus payments that weren’t authorized by law were made to some school districts, but that Dennis is blameless.
“I believe I speak for many House members that the ensuing investigation will exonerate Mr. Dennis and make clear that primary responsibility for this situation falls elsewhere,” Aurand said. “For all the things Mr. Dennis is, he is not an attorney. If the blame falls on anyone, it should be placed on the legal department of the KSDE (Kansas State Department of Education).”
Aurand said he has always found Dennis “to be consistently straightforward, diligent, and honest. I have deep respect for him and trust in his work.”
The Kansas Association of School Boards, the Kansas School Superintendents’ Association, the United School Administrators of Kansas, the Kansas National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers of Kansas issued a rare joint statement to support Dennis and defend his integrity.
“The organizations representing teachers, school staff, school boards and school administrators may have disagreements from time to time, but if there is one thing we all unequivocally agree upon, it is this: Dale Dennis is the most trustworthy, honest and respected advocate for children and schools and has been throughout his years of service,” the joint statement said.
Dennis has worked for the state in school finance since 1967 and the annual award for the state’s most outstanding school administrator is named after him.
“Our Legislature and all Kansans should remain focused on the serious issues facing public schools rather than attacking a man being accused of ensuring Kansas kids have a safe ride to school,” the joint statement said.
Kobach enters fray
Not all the commentary Thursday was in favor of Dennis. Kobach, a Republican candidate for governor, posted on Facebook his support for Wagle and Ryckman.
“Unelected bureaucrats should never get away with ignoring state law,” he said. “Handing out hundreds of millions of dollars without authority to do so is absolutely outrageous. You'd never get away with that in private business, and you shouldn't in government.”
Kobach said Wagle and Ryckman “have taken a positive step in demanding action. I am joining them in calling for an investigation into these corrupt practices.”
A spokeswoman for the state Board of Education said she could not confirm whether Dennis is the subject of Friday’s special meeting, citing confidentiality of personnel matters.
But the timing of the hastily called meeting seemed to indicate it was related to the Wagle/Ryckman letter.
In their letter, the legislative leaders requested that the board immediately suspend Dennis with pay while the issue of bus spending is investigated.
“We further ask that you extend this leave to any other KSDE staff who knowingly participated in this misallocation,” the letter said.
Board Chairman Jim Porter, the addressed recipient of the Wagle/Ryckman letter, is expected to make a public statement following Friday’s meeting, said Education Department spokeswoman Denise Kahler.
Bus money at issue
A Legislative Post Audit report in December found fault with the way school transportation funds have been allocated since sometime in the 1970s or 80s.
Wagle and Ryckman cited that audit in their claim that Dennis had misallocated bus money to school districts by setting a minimum level of funding without authorization in state law.
“These unauthorized expenditures by Mr. Dennis and KSDE are not negligible,” the letter said. “They have had enormous consequences for Kansas taxpayers.”
Wagle and Ryckman estimated that the misallocation totaled between $300 million and $405 million over as much as 45 years.
Dennis responded that he doesn’t know where Wagle and Ryckman got their numbers and that he has allocated the transportation funding exactly the way he was instructed to by legislative leaders in the early 1980s.
He said the department occasionally seeks clarification from legislative leadership in implementing the laws they pass, and bus funding was one of those times.
At the time, lawmakers were concerned that without adjustments, a so-called “best fit” analysis used in funding school transportation would discriminate against districts with high population density, including Wichita, Maize and Haysville, Dennis said.
So they told him to “take the upper, those high-density districts, eight to 10 of them, throw out the high and low and pick the median and you freeze it there so they’re not discriminated against,” Dennis said.
“A member of the legislative staff drew it out for me, showed me how to do it, what to do, and said ‘That’s our definition of a best fit,’ and said ‘Do you understand it?’” Dennis said. “And I said ‘Yes, sir.’ And it’s been in effect for 30-some years.”
The complaints about Dennis come in the midst of mounting tension over school finance at the Statehouse.
The Supreme Court has ruled the Legislature has failed to meet its constitutional duty to adequately finance schools and ordered lawmakers to fix it during this session.
Dennis was the key financial witness in the school finance case and his testimony undermined the Legislature’s defense of its “block grant” school funding mechanism.
He testified that no school district got more operating money and many got less under the block grants – a total of $53 million less statewide.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward of Wichita, a Democratic candidate for governor, said he thinks Republican leaders are going after Dennis to try to discredit the data he has provided and cloud the school finance debate.
“They have an expert from out of town who’s going to deliver a report and before that happens they want everybody who does independent data analysis not to be at work,” Ward said. “If they’re successful, that just creates chaos, or worse, fake data.”
The Legislature has retained Lori L. Taylor, a professor with the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, to advise on how much money is required for a suitable education. Jesse Levin, a researcher at the American Institutes for Research, will review her conclusions.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Derek Schmidt confirmed he has been in contact with legislative leaders about the contents of the Legislative Post Audit report and supports a deeper independent audit.
Schmidt is not conducting any investigation at present, but is monitoring the situation, said spokeswoman Jennifer Montgomery.