Small school district leaders plead with legislators not to force consolidation

? Officials from some of the smallest school districts in Kansas said Thursday that legislators have already held out “sticks and carrots” to encourage consolidation.

But going a step further to reduce funding targeted toward the smallest of the small, they told the House Education Committee, would do more to harm rural lifestyles and the quality of Kansas schools.

“You need to get off the floor and on to the balcony. Get the big picture,” said Carl Helm, superintendent in the Chase-Raymond district. “When the rural school goes, so does the rest of the community.”

The bill, drafted by the committee’s chairman, Republican Rep. Clay Aurand of Courtland, incorporates some of the findings of a new legislative staff audit that reviewed the state’s efforts to reorganize school districts.

It would set a threshold that would reduce the amount of extra state aid school receive based solely on their size. The plan would affect 25 of the state’s 293 school districts that have fewer than 400 students and cover less than 200 square miles.

Aurand said he wanted to use financial pressure to get the districts to think seriously about consolidating, and that he didn’t want the state to have to force consolidation, as had happened in the 1960s.

“It’s an incentive before you get too much smaller,” Aurand said.

Auditors suggested two scenarios that Kansas could save between $18 million under the changes that Aurand mirrors and $138 million by consolidating districts that have fewer than 1,600 students.

Legislators are looking for ways to save state revenues, faced with a projected $416 million deficit in the 2011 budget which begins July 1.

Solomon superintendent Jim Runge said his district would be one of those that would be forced to consolidate under the proposal, but questioned whether the state would see any savings given the potential for increased transportation costs.

Runge said school districts were already moving toward merging because of the loss of nearly $400 in aid per student over the past two school years.

“Let the locals work this out. I don’t think you want to rip the heart out of a local community,” Runge said. “These are great schools. You should be asking yourselves how you make the larger schools like these.”