Topeka Kansas House members rejected portions of a bill Tuesday that would have reduced state aid for some small school districts.
The bill would have pushed six districts with enrollments of fewer than 200 students and fewer than 200 square miles to consolidate. The districts are Argonia, Attica, Altoona-Midway, Baileyville, Chase and Elk Valley.
But the bill was amended on a 75-39 vote to remove those provisions. Supporters of the amendment said districts didn’t deserve to be punished financially and were likely to consider consolidating on their own terms.
“We have sent the message to the small schools. I think it’s an effective message,” said Rep. Steve Lukert, a Sabetha Democrat. “To hit them with the stick again isn’t a good message.”
Under the bill, those smaller districts would have had state aid reduced to the same level as those with 200 students.
But Rep. Bill Light, a Rolla Republican, said consolidation should be a local decision by school boards, not mandated by legislators. Kansas last forced hundreds of districts to consolidate in the 1960s, a process that still stirs resentment statewide.
The change in small school funding was proposed by Rep. Clay Aurand, chairman of the House Education Committee. He drafted the bill in response to an audit that indicated the state could save money that it spends in aid for districts that are considered too small, many by choice.
It was the third time in the past three years that legislators have tried to adjust the funding provision and push some of the 293 Kansas districts to merge their operations.
“It’s becoming clear to me that we will never do anything,” said Aurand, a Courtland Republican.
Kansas gives smaller school districts, most in rural areas, additional funds on the premise that because of their enrollment the additional funds are needed to provide a basic education.
Rep. Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said legislators shouldn’t hide behind the bill’s intent and make consolidation a fair process, not punish districts already facing financial struggles.
“Let’s make no bones about this,” King said. “This is a forced consolidation bill.” The bill contained other provisions that would allow three or more districts to discuss voluntary consolidation and form two districts. Those provisions advanced to a final vote, expected Wednesday.
Legislators said the change helps in particularly sparse, low-enrollment districts where distance between the current district and merged schools becomes a barrier to consolidation. If it becomes law later this session, districts would have the authority to speak with multiple districts to best divide their territory and students.