Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Kansas lawmakers cautious about school district consolidation

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

The chairman of Gov. Sam Brownback's School Efficiency Task Force told lawmakers Monday that his group carefully avoided using the word "consolidation" in their report.

But it didn't take long for members of the House and Senate education committees to figure out that's what one of the group's recommendations was all about.

"We specifically did not say consolidation or use that word because it has such a negative and scary connotation to everyone," task force chairman Ken Willard said during a joint meeting of the two panels. "We're talking about what we want to accomplish, and that is to reduce the level and the numbers of administrations around the state and allow those administrators to determine which schools need to move, change or whatever."

The task force report, which was released to the public last week, includes a recommendation to study "administration personnel structures and positions." Within that study, the panel recommends the Legislature "Investigate the regionalization of administration structures; and realign district geographical boundaries in order to facilitate administrative efficiencies."

"I understand the reluctance to use the word consolidation," said Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, the ranking member on the House education panel. "But the point is, how else can you get the efficiency you're talking about?"

Many Kansans still have painful memories of the last major consolidation effort in the mid-1960s, when the state merged an estimated 2,800 school districts into 311 unified school districts.

That resulted in closing many one- and two-room school houses, which had been organized as individual districts, and merging them with schools in larger communities, thus spelling the end for many of those small towns.

Since then, rural populations have continued to shift toward larger urban areas, and some districts have merged voluntarily. Today, there are 286 school districts in Kansas. But the seven largest of those, including Lawrence, have one-third of all the students in the state, and the 17 largest have just over half of all students.

Meanwhile, 31 districts have fewer than 200 students in their entire K-12 systems, including five that have fewer than 100.

"This recommends regionalization in some fashion, and a study would have to go into that to determine what works best," Willard said. "Some studies show it could be done with far fewer administrations, which would represent a significant savings to the state — or, maybe not savings to the state, but a freeing up of money to be spent on education and going to the classrooms."

Rep. Ward Cassidy, R-St. Francis, vice chairman of the House Education Committee, said he doubted whether lawmakers will try to tackle consolidation this year. But he said there may be room to talk about some limited kinds of consolidation.

"What I personally would like to see is some incentive for small districts or different districts working together," he said.

Cassidy noted that under current law, districts can consolidate without suffering a net loss in their base state aid for three years.

"Maybe there's a step before that where we can save the state some money — merge their vocational programs, or split music teachers, or split superintendents between two districts. There are some places doing that, and I think we can save the state money where communities could buy into it a lot easier than if the Legislature just shoves consolidation down their throat."