NE districts to vote on school merger

TOPEKA — Two northeast Kansas school districts easily cleared a key hurdle to consolidation Wednesday, putting the final decision in the hands of voters.

The 10-member State Board of Education unanimously approved a merger agreement between the Axtell and Sabetha districts, setting up a May 25 vote of local residents. Consolidation would take effect July 1.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the pace of consolidations among the 295 school districts has increased from one or two annually a decade ago to three or more a year. He said at least six districts have either agreed to or are working toward consolidation.

More consolidations are likely in the coming months. Legislators are negotiating final language on a bill that would allow multiple school districts to enter discussions that result in fewer districts. Currently, state law allows for only two districts to enter consolidation agreements.

The changes could allow districts faced with large geographic areas to decide to split territories. Tallman said even if it doesn't result in fewer schools, it will encourage reorganization among districts to better serve students.

Tallman said legislators have ordered studies and considered measures to force districts to consolidate. But the bills have failed because many want to leave the decision to locals, not force it on Kansans as it was done in the 1960s to improve education quality.

The superintendents in Axtell and Sabetha said the consolidation discussion began several years ago when declining rural populations and tighter education revenue for small districts became problematic.

"We were a year or two out from not being able to continue," said Bob Bartkoski, superintendent of Axtell, who will lose his job as a result of the merger. "The situation is different now because of the severe declining enrollment."

The superintendents say the decision was driven by a desire to maintain quality education for students without further cuts in staff or programs at the elementary grades. Axtell has about 290 students and Sabetha has nearly 900.

"Our most precious resource in the state of Kansas are our kids," Bartkoski said. "It's challenging, but (consolidation) is an opportunity."

Dennis Stones, Sabetha's superintendent, said the move will at least temporarily retain curriculum that would otherwise have to be cut in coming years, resulting in staff reductions.

"It keeps people working. They are all good teachers," Stones said.

The Axtell-Sabetha district will be able to take advantage of financial incentives that allow the consolidated district to receive the same level of funding as if they were separate. After two years, funding will be based on the new combined enrollment, which still could force staff or building changes to balance the budget.