Kansas school district realignment bill stalls, but educators still feeling the stress

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka

? After a tumultuous hearing last week, the chairman of the House Education Committee said it’s unlikely any action will be taken on a bill this year that would force the consolidation of more than half of the state’s school districts.

But there are still plenty of other school-related bills pending in the Legislature, including one that would put tighter controls on their ability to issue bonds, and another that would broaden a program that provides some student scholarships to attend private and parochial schools.

And school leaders are saying the sum total of all those proposals is now taking a toll on the morale of their teachers and staffs.

“I went to a meeting of superintendents (Thursday), and we all get to talking together, it almost gets kind of depressing,” said Baldwin City school superintendent Paul Dorathy. “The amount of control, the controlling bills that the Legislature feels like they’re needing to do — controlling bond issues; controlling consolidation — it just seems like there’s more and more, and they aren’t going to leave it alone.”

Baldwin City is among the school districts that would be forced to merge or consolidate with another district in Douglas County if House Bill 2504 were to pass.

That’s because Baldwin City has fewer than 1,500 students, the smallest any school district could be, under the bill, in a county that has more than 10,000 students total.

“I’ve had a number of patrons and parents that have contacted me, very concerned about that,” Dorathy said. “I think they’re concerned about losing our identity. I think they’re concerned about losing our schools. And I think they’re concerned about losing local decision-making on what happens in our schools.”

But Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, who chairs the Education Committee, said after Wednesday’s hearing on the bill that it’s unlikely to go anywhere soon.

“There was so much information presented during the hearing that it’s going to take us some time to filter through that,” Highland said. “A lot of suggestions were made, and some of them were actually very good. … So, for immediate action, no. But we did get a lot out of the hearing.”

But even if the consolidation bill passes — its supporters prefer to call it a “realignment” bill because it only calls for consolidating administration, not schools — district officials said this week that the combination of all the proposals is putting their teachers and staffs on edge.

“I think it’s the perception that there isn’t very much support for public schools in Topeka,” said Denis Yoder, superintendent of the Perry-Lecompton school district in Jefferson County.

In Jefferson County, all six school districts would be required to merge under the bill because there are fewer than 10,000 students countywide. The bill also would place caps on the number of central office administrators and support staff its consolidated district would be allowed to employ.

The six districts currently employ about 73 administrators, supervisors and central office workers, Yoder said. Under the bill, that number would be cut down to 16.2 full-time equivalent positions.

“It would be very difficult,” Yoder said when asked if a countywide district could be run effectively with that size of staff. “If our goal as school districts is to provide quality education for our students, it seems like the quality would be very hard to provide.”

The bills being considered this year come on the heels of the most dramatic change in school funding that Kansas has enacted in more than two decades — the decision last year to repeal the school finance formula and replace it for two years with block grants that hold school funding at flat levels while lawmakers devise another formula.

Lawmakers said at the time that the two-year block grants were intended to provide districts with a level of certainty and stability during the transition period. But area superintendents say that’s not the feeling they’re getting.

“No, in fact we’re not certain we can get through the school year without some type of funding reduction,” Yoder said.

“Well, we are in uncertain times,” Rep. Highland said. “We have the block grant. We need to develop the funding formula. And we have all these other issues; the audit study (from the consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal) that came through recommended all kinds of ways to save money.”

Highland said the Education Committee may choose to go through that audit report first and consider those recommendations before taking on a plan to consolidate districts.

But he said one thing the committee will deal with this year is the bill to put more legislative oversight over school districts’ bonding authority by requiring districts to submit those proposals to an oversight committee for approval before they could qualify for state aid for their bond and interest payments.

“That one is front and center. We will deal with that,” he said.

Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City, said she understands why school districts view the Legislature’s actions as disruptive, and she thinks it could have long-term negative consequences for Kansas public schools.

“We’ve already seen the retirement or relocation of teachers, either to different professions or across state lines,” she said. “Missouri has enjoyed our — I’ll call it an attack on teachers, but the proponents would not say they’re doing that.”