Kansas State Board of Education calls special meeting to decide fate of school finance chief

Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis briefs the House Appropriations Committee on school funding issues following a state Supreme Court decision that Kansas is not spending enough money on its public schools, Monday, March 6, 2017, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna).

? The chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education has called a special closed-door meeting for 1 p.m. Friday to consider a letter from legislative leaders asking the board to suspend the agency’s top school finance expert, Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis.

Board Chairman Jim Porter, of Fredonia, confirmed Thursday that he had received a letter from Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, asking that Dennis be suspended.

He said responding to that letter would be the only matter of business at the special meeting. But he also said the state board did not take orders from legislators about personnel issues.

“It is not the responsibility of the Legislature to staff the Department of Education,” Porter said in a phone interview.

The Wichita Eagle first reported the story about the letter Thursday.

The letter came in response to a Legislative Post Audit report released in December that said the Department of Education had been distributing transportation aid incorrectly, possibly over a period of decades, in a way that was advantageous to large, densely populated districts like Wichita.

“Over the past five years, KSDE’s minimum funding level has provided a total of $45 million more in transportation funding than allowed by law,” the audit stated.

The state pays for districts to transport students who live at least 2.5 miles away from their school, although districts are allowed to provide transportation to other students who live closer.

The report said KSDE had been properly applying the complex formula laid out in state law, but it also said the agency had continued providing a “funding minimum” to some districts, even though the minimum formula had been repealed in 1973.

The report notes that agency officials were aware that the minimum formula had been repealed but that “they maintained the minimum at the request many years ago of several legislators to provide additional funding to large, high density school districts.”

The request for Dennis to be suspended comes as lawmakers are under a threat from the Kansas Supreme Court to close public schools this summer if the Legislature does not pass a school funding system that meets constitutional muster.

Dennis, who has worked for the department of education for 52 years, is regarded in education circles as one of the few people in state government who fully understands school finance formulas and who can calculate the impact any changes in the formula would have on each of the state’s 286 school districts.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, a candidate for governor, said in his own letter to Porter on Thursday that Dennis would be invaluable to lawmakers as they try to address the court’s decision, adding that Dennis’ loss “would be a catastrophe” for the state.

Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, a former chairman of the House Education Committee, also issued a statement of support for Dennis, saying the department’s legal staff should be held accountable for the errors, not Dennis.

“For all the things Mr. Dennis is, he is not an attorney,” Aurand said in the statement. “If the blame falls on anyone, it should be placed on the legal department of the KSDE. It is inconceivable to me that Mr. Dennis didn’t have ongoing discussions with legal counsel who are tasked with the sole duty of making sure the applicable education laws of Kansas are enacted.”

Outside education advocacy groups also issued a joint statement of support for Dennis.

“For decades, Dale Dennis has been the best friend public education and the kids of Kansas have had,” the letter stated. “The organizations representing teachers, school staff, school boards, and school administrators may have disagreements from time to time, but if there is one thing we all, unequivocally agree upon, it is this: Dale Dennis is the most trustworthy, honest, and respected advocate for children and schools and has been throughout his years of service.”

The statement was issued on behalf of the Kansas National Education Association, Kansas Association of School Boards, United School Administrators of Kansas, Kansas School Superintendents Association and the American Federation of Teachers Kansas.