Starting a major transportation bill in the Senate allows a bill dealing with higher-education restructuring to be sent to a House committee chaired by Rep. Ralph Tanner, R-Baldwin.
Perhaps it's appropriate the best opportunity in a quarter century to amend the structure of Kansas higher education landed in the lap of a former college president.
Rep. Ralph Tanner, a Baldwin Republican and past CEO of Baker University, will chair the House Education Committee when it takes the lead on a strategy drafted by Gov. Bill Graves' task force.
Tanner knows well the fate of two dozen previous attempts to harmonize the state's public universities, community colleges and vocational-technical schools.
"I've lost count on how many times this issue has been broached," Tanner said Monday in an interview.
In part, education and legislative leaders viewed past efforts as too radical. Turf protection remains an issue. Another consideration: Financial stakes are high, because public higher education consumes 15 percent of the state's $9 billion annual budget.
The task force's mission was to craft a modest blueprint for change that had a respectable chance of passage. Legislative staffers are crafting the bill for introduction in the House, and no hearings will be scheduled until that occurs.
"Eventually, you come to dealing with the art of the possible," Tanner said. "This is an idea whose time has probably come."
Nuts and bolts
A bill that passed the House last session would have created a superboard to govern all of the state's public higher-education institutions. The legislation would have eliminated the Kansas Board of Regents, which has authority over Kansas University and five other state institutions.
It came as no surprise the Board of Regents lobbied vigorously against the bill and no shock when the Senate spiked the measure.
Graves responded by appointing the Governor's Task Force on Higher Education Structure. He made it clear the goal was evolution, not revolution.
"The expectation is not to revolutionize higher education in Kansas," Graves wrote in a letter to task force members.
The task force's solution: Create two new education boards.
A new seven-member Kansas Higher Education Coordinating Council would be responsible for strategic planning, data collection, conflict resolution, budget analysis and financial aid for all public higher education in the state.
A new nine-member Kansas Board of Trustees would handle planning and policy for the state's 19 community colleges and 10 vocational and technical schools. That authority currently rests with the State Board of Education.
Under the proposal, the Board of Regents would retain budget and hiring authority at the six universities and limited control of Washburn University. WU, a municipal institution in Topeka, would keep its governing board and could appeal disputes with the Board of Regents directly to the new coordinating council.
All community college boards of trustees would stay in operation. Power to draft budgets and make personnel decisions at community colleges would be in the hands of elected boards representing individual colleges.
The task force didn't address financial implications of reform, which could be a stumbling block. There was no recommended budget for the two new boards.
In addition, there was no hint of state budget increases for institutions willing to go along with change. Last session, the higher-education-reform bill developed in the House would have cost $138 million over four years because of increased funding for the schools and elimination of community college property tax mill levies.
"I think that very definitely needs to be discussed," Tanner said.
Neither did the task force outline how members of the two new boards -- appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate -- would convince universities or colleges to do anything substantial.
For example, the new coordinating council would have no authority over hiring and firing of presidents and could only submit a critique of budgets submitted to the governor by the Board of Regents and Board of Trustees.
Meanwhile, implementation of the task force's recommendation would require passage of a constitutional amendment. Historically, Kansas voters have been loathe to rewrite that document.
Leaders of the Board of Regents and community colleges have been savvy enough to go light on praise and heavy on caution as the task force's framework begins its journey in the Statehouse.
Regents Chairman William Docking and Sheila Frahm, executive director of the Kansas Association of Community Colleges, said they were wary because lawmakers could dramatically alter the task force's vision.
Indeed, Tanner intends to tweak the plan. He wants to modify the package to avoid a vote on a constitutional amendment.
Docking, of Arkansas City, convinced regents last week not to take an official position on the task force recommendations.
"It would be premature in my view."
Frahm said the community college presidents agreed with the concept of the restructuring plan but they too decided to keep their powder dry.
"The feeling was, never before have we been at this level of discussion, and the time is right for the Legislature to make a decision," she said.
Graves, who formally received the task force report last week, called the restructuring plan "an excellent framework" for debate. He decided to send it to the Legislature without suggesting any amendments.
"We're at the point where it's probably good to take a chance on a new look," Graves said.
The governor said the proposed Kansas Board of Trustees would elevate the governance of the community colleges to the level of the Board of Regents.
"They are as important to our state (as universities)," Graves said.
Regent Ken Havner, who served on the task force, said the proposed coordinating council might help add continuity to fractured voices of post-secondary education.
"We need a unified voice to speak for all higher education across Kansas," he said. "No one entity has that responsibility today.
"There are a lot of good things for us to talk about in this proposal. I am cautiously supportive."
KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway said he would welcome a coordinating council capable of arbitrating territorial and curriculum disputes.
He said the plan had merit because it retains the governance power of state universities and community colleges but "would improve coordination between the two bodies."
Not everyone involved with regents universities warmed to the task force's perspective.
Regent Harry Craig of Topeka said the obvious drawback was the proposed creation of a bulkier higher education bureaucracy.
"I think it is poor public policy to put a layer on top of a layer."
Jon Wefald, president of Kansas State University and a member of the task force, said the potential cost would raise eyebrows.
"We don't know how expensive this is going to be," he said.
Wefald, who joined Havner and other task force members in voting 17-2 to submit the report to the governor, said that if the Legislature made substantive changes "we might think differently."
Tanner said that nothing would be passed -- especially a constitutional amendment -- without endorsement of all vested interests. The legislative and executive branches of government, universities, community colleges and technical schools need common ground.
He vowed to offer all constituencies ample opportunity to make feelings known. "I do what this to be a consensual kind of agreement."
-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is email@example.com.