Bill would reduce school districts

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JIM O’MALLEY
TOPEKA–The state’s 304 school districts would be reduced to 110 under a bill now before the House Education Committee.

House Bill 2976 would replace existing school districts with county school districts in 102 of the state’s 105 counties. In Johnson, Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties, the state’s biggest school districts would not be affected.

Rep. Bill Mason, R-El Dorado, said he proposed the bill as a way to reduce administrative costs. A report last year by the Legislative Division of Post-Audit showed that Kansas spent more per student on non-instructional activities than neighboring states.

The Post-Audit report found that in 1998 and 1999, Kansas ranked 48th in the country in the percentage of education spending devoted to instructional activities. That means that the state ranked third in the percentage devoted to non-instructional activities.

Kansas spent about $245 more per student on non-instructional activities than the average amount spent by four neighboring states-Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Total public school enrollment in Kansas is about 470,000, the report said. So if Kansas spent the average amount for non-instructional activities that its neighbors spent, it could save about $115 million a year.

About three-quarters of district-level administrative spending is for pay and benefits.

The report concluded: “The greatest potential for freeing up money to be spent on instruction lies in reducing the number of non-instruction staff Kansas school districts employ.”

Other members of the House Education Committee have said they doubted the measure could pass. Mason said he knew the proposal would be controversial-the last time he proposed it, he received death threats. But he said he hoped legislators would support it.

He said his proposal was not intended to require closing schools, but to reduce the number of district administrators.

Because about 40 of the state’s 105 counties are losing population and about two-thirds of school districts have declining enrollment, something like his proposal was inevitable, Mason said.

There were districts that wanted to merge, but present law made it difficult.

Kathy Toelkes, Kansas Department of Education spokeswoman, said that 190 of the state’s school districts were experiencing declining enrollment and that 251 of the 304 districts were receiving low-enrollment weighting in the school-finance formula.

How much money Mason’s proposal would save is unclear. Toelkes said the proposal would save some money, but that the department was unable to determine how much.

Kansas’ 304 districts aren’t an unusually high number. Missouri has 529, Oklahoma has 544, Iowa has 372 and Colorado has 176.

Mark Tallman, executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the association would oppose the bill. He said he hadn’t seen any statistics showing that moving to fewer but larger districts would save money and that he didn’t see any other benefit.

Tallman said that communities have formed around the unified school districts established in the 1960s. Changing to larger districts would disrupt those communities, and the larger districts would reduce local accountability.

The consolidation of school districts in the ’60s was bitterly contested, and Tallman said he expected Mason’s proposal would be very controversial.

“There will be tremendous opposition to this,” he said.

And there were practical problems with the proposal, he said. There are many districts that cross county lines. What would happen, he asked, to existing contracts and school bonds?

However, the bill contains provisions dealing with teacher contracts and school bonds.

Tallman said that laying off 200 school superintendents wouldn’t save that much money. In many smaller districts, superintendents are also school principals.

“It’s easy in the abstract to say be more efficient,” Tallman said. “But more efficient means closing schools. To save any significant money, you would have to close schools.”

The bill is now before the House Education Committee. As of late last week, a hearing had not been scheduled.

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