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Archive for Friday, February 7, 2003

Legislators intrigued by proposal to consolidate state school districts

February 7, 2003

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— Some legislators found an idea for consolidating the state's 303 school districts into just a few dozen worth further discussion. Others, however, had their doubts.

A team of three superintendents and a former district finance director presented the idea Thursday to the House and Senate education committees.

They outlined how, with as few as 40 districts, the state could improve education while redistributing scarce dollars for salaries, supplies and health benefits.

"It's a very intriguing idea," said House Education Chairman Kathy Decker, R-Clay Center. "I think people are kind of thinking it through."

The proposal's four authors estimated that reorganization would save $240 million to $480 million that would be redistributed among the remaining districts.

"We like that," said Rep. Frank Miller, R-Independence. "We would be delighted if we didn't have to raise school budgets."

As presented, the state would reorganize school districts from the current 303 to as few as 40 of about 11,000 students each. The proposal envisions one superintendent, a uniform contract with staff and fewer buildings per district.

Kansas spends $2.3 billion, or $3,763 per pupil, on aid to its school districts -- a level that education officials believe is too low.

The presentation was made by Manhattan Supt. Sharol Little; Salina Supt. Gary Norris; Pratt Supt. Ken Kennedy; and Morris Reeves, former finance director with the Dodge City district, who also is one of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' 28 education advisers.

"This is only an idea," Little said, noting that it was the product of three years of research.

Members of the Senate Education Committee received the same presentation later Thursday and gave the plan mixed reviews.

Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington, said legislators would have to look at consolidation "at some point" but that students' needs could be addressed without redrawing districts.

"I think it stirs up more problems than it provides solutions," Lee said of the presentation.

As a guide for their work, the superintendents studied the business models used by Wal-Mart, McDonald's and regional hospital districts in choosing locations for stores and facilities. Those models weigh such variables as population centers, traffic patterns and the ability of communities to support the enterprise.

Lee took note of the McDonald's reference, pointing out that a McDonald's had closed in Beloit because residents supported local establishments first.

Lee also said she would have preferred smaller districts, like those she represents, to have been part of the presentation to legislators.

"There are lot of people who think Pratt (1,180 students) is a large district," she said.

Senate Education Chairman Dwayne Umbarger called the proposal a legitimate blueprint that legislators could use as the consolidation debate unfolds.

"What was nice was that it came from the schools themselves," said Umbarger, R-Thayer.

Little said while there was support among school administrators for exploring reorganization, there are opponents as well. At one recent meeting, a superintendent told Little he would be fired if his local board knew he was even listening to the idea.

"I don't see this happening without a push from the Legislature," Little said.

Rep. Bill Reardon, D-Kansas City, said while the concept would take several years to implement, legislators were increasingly inclined to revisit what was a painful experience in the 1960s, when the state last forced consolidation.

"I think it's important in any education endeavor that you have people willing to look beyond today and tomorrow," Reardon said.

Decker said the concept would be included in a bill that she would introduce in committee to continue the reorganization debate.

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