The State Board of Education on Friday shot down a request by legislative leaders who wanted to suspend the state’s top school finance official in a dispute over funding of school transportation.
The vote was 9-1 and was cheered by about 100 education officials, lawmakers and others who packed the board room in support of Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis.
Several members of the board expressed strong confidence in Dennis and the data he provides that guides spending decisions affecting every school district in Kansas.
“At different times during his tenure, of over 50 years, people have relied on his expertise to help them put fair rules in place and legislation in place,” said board member Jim McNiece. “He’s kind of caught because he was the good guy to help them out, and now he’s the bad guy because apparently the people (legislative leaders) today don’t like that solution.”
The board vote gave guidance to Commissioner of Education Randy Watson to continue Dennis’ employment without interruption, a technicality because the board does not directly supervise department employees other than Watson.
John Bacon of Olathe was the only dissenter on the board; he did not explain his reasoning.
Dennis said through a department spokesperson that he would not comment.
The meeting was hastily called in response to a letter sent by Senate President Susan Wagle and House Speaker Ron Ryckman.
They cited a Legislative Post Audit report in December that found fault with the way school transportation funds have been allocated since sometime in the 1970s or 80s.
They said Dennis had misallocated bus money to school districts including Wichita for years by setting a minimum level of funding without authorization in state law. They say the overpayments could total as much as $405 million.
They wanted Dennis, who oversees the financial aspects of schools, to be suspended along with his immediate staff.
The board’s decision didn’t go down well with Jim Denning, the Senate majority leader from Overland Park who works closely with Wagle.
“He (Dennis) has been a long-term employee,” Denning said. “But they used that for cover to completely avoid talking about the real issue. Mr. Dennis isn’t the issue, the issue is the next time they cut this check, they’ve violated the law and they seem to think they’re above the law.”
Dennis has said he doesn’t know where Wagle and Ryckman got their numbers and that he was following legislative orders he was given in the early 1980s to avoid discriminating against districts with high population density when disbursing money for school busing.
Board Chairman Jim Porter, of Fredonia, said the ball’s now in the Legislature’s court.
“There’s a flaw in the law,” he said. “They need to fix it. That’s their job.”
In a statement after the meeting, Wagle said she will continue to call for an investigative audit of the Education Department.
“This is not about a single staff member, but instead about ensuring that the rule of law is followed,” Wagle said. “If this was done by an employee of a private business, they would have been placed on immediate administrative leave while a thorough investigation was conducted. You can stand with bureaucrats who’ve spent millions of unauthorized dollars or you can stand with the taxpayers. I will always stand with the Kansas taxpayers.”
Several lawmakers trekked across the street from the Capitol to show their support for Dennis. They say Dennis is among the state’s most honest and knowledgeable public servants, but the legislative leadership wanted to discredit his work and get him out of the way to muddy the waters during the upcoming discussion of a new school finance formula.
“I’m very disappointed in our legislative leadership,” said Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita and a former school board member. “The way that it was handled was very unprofessional. Legislators did not know about the secret meeting that the president and the speaker did to call into question Dale Dennis’ integrity.”
“I really think it’s a witch hunt,” Rogers said.
Tensions are on the rise at the Statehouse because the Supreme Court has ruled that lawmakers are unconstitutionally underfunding schools and ordered them to fix that in the current session.
Rep. Steven Crum, D-Haysville, said the issues that led to the request for Dennis’ suspension have been talked about over and over in committee hearings and audits over the decades.
“So why did they choose now to do this?” he said.
And, he said, the attack on Dennis backfired on those who made it.
“Really, all they’ve done is completely solidify the education community everywhere,” he said.
Crum is a teacher and his wife is a school board member.
“She may have been more upset about it than I am,” he said.
Education lobbyist Dave Heinemann is a former legislator who served with the late Senate Vice President Charles Angell, who Dennis said directed him on how to interpret the formula for bus funding.
Heinemann said it was and is “very common for legislators and staff to meet to try to make sure they’re fulfilling legislative intent.”
“If Charlie Angell was here right now, he’d be shocked to see this going on,” Heinemann said.
Dennis has worked for the state in school finance since 1967 and the award for outstanding school administrator of the year is named in his honor.
“He is not only an advocate for the students, he’s an advocate for just public schools in itself,” said Wichita superintendent Alica Thompson, who was among the superintendents who made the trip to Topeka for the board meeting.
“He keeps the buses on the road, and I use that term deliberately,” said Joan Simoneau, superintendent of the Burrton school district. “He’s the heart and soul of Kansas education.”
Larry Roth, superintendent of the Sedgwick school district, said Dennis is an integral part of the education system and has been for a long time.
“Just about every superintendent in the state for the last 30 to 40 years cut their teeth in school finance with Dale Dennis,” he said.
Roth said he meets with Dennis several times a year to ensure the district budget remains in compliance with state law.
“We’ve depended on him for a good number of years,” he said.