State Board of Education voices support for deputy commissioner, vows to improve accuracy and transparency

Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson, left, listens while State Board of Education member Kathy Busch voices her support for embattled Deputy Commissioner Dale Dennis.

? A near-unanimous Kansas State Board of Education voted Friday to voice its support for Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis, who has been under fire from legislative leaders.

At the same time, however, it also voted unanimously to direct Education Commissioner Randy Watson to bring recommendations to the board no later than March for procedures to improve transparency and accuracy in the way it distributes funds to the state’s 286 school districts.

That decision was greeted with applause from the large audience of superintendents, school board members and other education advocates who came to show their support for Dennis, the agency’s top school finance official and a 52-year veteran of the department.

“I think it was the appropriate outcome, based on what I know to be the historical background of the issue that has been raised,” Lawrence school board president Shannon Kimball said in an interview after the meeting. “It really never should have come to this in the first place.”

Earlier this week, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, sent a joint letter to state board chairman Jim Porter, of Fredonia, saying they had lost faith in the accuracy of Dennis’ work and asking that Dennis be placed on paid administrative leave pending an outside audit, and a possible attorney general’s investigation, into the way he had been distributing transportation aid to school districts.

That letter came on the heels of a Legislative Post Audit report released earlier in January that found Dennis had been following the complex formula in Kansas statutes for calculating the amount of transportation aid each district is entitled to.

In addition, though, it found that the agency had continued to use an element in an old formula, one repealed in 1973, that ensured large, densely populated districts would receive a minimum amount of transportation money for each student.

The audit said the agency had distributed $45 million over a five-year period that it was not legally authorized to distribute. But in their letter, Wagle and Ryckman suggested the actual figure could be as high as $405 million, if calculated all the way back to 1973.

Dennis reportedly told the auditors that he had been instructed to do that by lawmakers at the time.

After the Wagle-Ryckman letter became public, Watson asked the board for guidance on how to respond.

Under policies of the agency, the state board is directly involved in the hiring of only three individuals – the commissioner, general counsel and executive secretary. All other employees are under the commissioner’s direction.

The state board then called a special meeting for Friday, which involved two closed-door executive sessions. Finally, around 3 p.m., board member Sally Cauble of Dodge City made the motion to support Dennis.

“I move that the Kansas State Board of Education give guidance to Commissioner Watson to fully support the continued employment of Deputy Dale Dennis and his staff,” Cauble said to a loud round of applause from the audience.

That motion passed, 9-1, with board member John Bacon dissenting. He did not immediately explain his vote.

A number of board members noted that the method Dennis had been using over the years to calculate transportation aid came about as the result of discussions with legislative leaders at the time, and they said there had never been any secret about it.

“I don’t believe Deputy Commissioner Dennis ever hid the fact that that was an agreement that was put forth at that time (as) the legislative leadership had directed him,” board member Kathy Busch of Wichita said.

“I served 13 years as a superintendent in Kansas,” Porter added. “I’m not sure when I knew this, but I was aware of the issue of transportation as a practitioner for at least a decade. It was never hidden. It was always well understood, and I have absolute confidence that things were done in an appropriate manner.”

The letter from Wagle and Ryckman came just as lawmakers are preparing to respond to a Kansas Supreme Court mandate to resolve constitutional problems in the current school funding system before the end of March.

Lawmakers have hired private consultants to perform a cost study to help determine how much additional money that would cost, but some have put the figure as high as $600 million per year in additional money – the same amount Gov. Sam Brownback recommended in his budget proposal.

Some in the Legislature had suggested the letter from Wagle and Ryckman served only as a distraction in the larger discussion about school finance.

After the board’s action, however, Wagle issued a statement defending her position.

“This is not about a single staff member, but instead about ensuring that the rule of law is followed,” she said. “If this was done by an employee of a private business, they would have been placed on immediate administrative leave while a thorough investigation was conducted.

“You can stand with bureaucrats who’ve spent millions of unauthorized dollars, or you can stand with the taxpayers. I will always stand with the Kansas taxpayers,” Wagle added.

But Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka issued a separate statement defending Dennis.

“Dale Dennis is the definition of a true public servant,” she said. “He has steered our public school system during challenging times and dealt with significant cuts implemented by the Brownback/Colyer Administration. We need more dedicated advocates like Dale who put our kids first.”

Four former governors of Kansas — Republicans Bill Graves and Mike Hayden and Democrats John Carlin and Kathleen Sebelius­ — all of whom had worked with Dennis, also issued a joint statement of support.