School consolidation plan pitched

Superintendents suggest collapsing districts would improve financial issues

? Two superintendents hope their proposal for a regional education district ignites a serious debate about school consolidation and inequities in how the state distributes its aid.

“With the continued decline in enrollment in many of our school districts, it is obvious that without restructuring, education opportunities will degrade,” said Ken Kennedy, superintendent in Pratt.

Kennedy and Manhattan superintendent Sharol Little have spent the past couple of years working on a plan to reorganize the state’s 303 school districts. They used business models from McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and regional hospitals as their guide.

The plan would create regional education districts by collapsing smaller districts into ones covering larger areas. That would allow for better use of resources with fewer buildings, activities, operating budgets, administrators and school boards, they argue.

Kennedy and Little have been pitching the plan around Kansas.

“It’s time for the Legislature to take a look at it,” Little said.

Even as Kennedy and Little try to sell their proposal, two western Kansas districts have come to the conclusion that they cannot survive alone. On Tuesday, the State Board of Education is to act on a request by the Bazine and Ransom school districts to consolidate.

The districts, located in Ness County, will have a combined enrollment of 223 students ” 129 at Ransom and 94 in Bazine. The entire county, with four districts, has an enrollment of about 560 students.

Within the last year, the West Graham-Morland district has dissolved to become part of the Hill City district as enrollments declined and keeping schools open became difficult.

School consolidation has been a bitter subject in Kansas for four decades, and legislators hesitate even to discuss it. A 1963 state law ordered consolidation, and it was upheld by the courts in 1965. By 1969, 1,850 districts had been winnowed down to only 310.

Kennedy said many communities still fear a loss of identity with further consolidation.

“It’s the idea that the entire community really revolves around their school,” he said.

In 2001, legislators and the state board received a consultant’s support that suggested that 50 of the state’s school districts could be collapsed to improve education and make the allocation of dollars more efficient. Legislators did little with the $200,000 report.

Kennedy and Little have reached similar conclusions in their report, which they completed on their own time for little more than $1,000. They hope that given the state’s budget crisis, either plan gets serious consideration.

Gov. Bill Graves has already trimmed nearly $120 million from the fiscal 2003 budget, including $17.5 million from schools. The renewed consolidation buzz hints that fewer districts will mean a savings to the state when dollars are tight.

Kennedy and Little say the savings will not be as substantial as legislators might hope but could allow for the better allocation of limited resources.

To encourage the new districts, the superintendents say financial incentives are necessary, including funding for the transfer of school property to other entities. They also believe penalties should be considered for districts that won’t consolidate.