Battle lines being drawn over Kansas school district ‘realignment’ bill
TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers are gearing up for what could be one of the toughest political battles seen in the Statehouse since the early 1960s, a bill that would force the consolidation of many of the state's smaller school districts.
Rep. John Bradford, R-Lansing, is the author of a bill that will be the subject of hearings next week in the House Education Committee.
Starting in 2017, it would cut the number of school districts by more than half, down to 132, by forming one countywide district in each county with fewer than 10,000 students. And in counties with more than 10,000 students, districts would be realigned so that every district in that county has at least 1,500 students.
Furthermore, the bill would require the Kansas State Department of Education to repeat the process of realigning districts every 10 years after that.
According to an analysis by the Kansas Association of School Boards, the Lawrence school district would not be affected by that because it has slightly more than 12,000 students.
But the Baldwin City district, with only 1,386 students, would be forced to merge with another district, possibly the Eudora school district, which has 1,743 students.
Also affected would be all six school districts in Jefferson County, each of which has fewer than 1,000 students.
Bradford said the aim of his bill is not to force the closing of school buildings in small communities, but to consolidate the administrative functions, which he says could save taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
"A good case is Reno County," Bradford said, noting that there are six school districts, including Hutchinson, the largest district in the county.
"I spoke with one of the county commissioners in Reno County and he says, 'I don't need six of everything. I need one superintendent,'" Bradford said. "One superintendent is more than capable of running that many schools."
Bradford said that by consolidating administrations and selling off surplus administrative buildings, vehicles and other equipment, the bill would save taxpayers an estimated $173 million over 10 years.
But Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said he believes that figure is overstated.
"You may have only one superintendent (per county), that's true," he said. "You may have less of a CEO, but either that person is going to have to be overseeing many more buildings and principals and functions and a larger budget themselves, or they're going to get more help. They're going to hire assistant superintendents. They're going to hire business directors."
The state's current system of unified school districts was established through a massive consolidation process in the 1960s. At that time, there were more than a thousand school "districts," many of which did not include the full K-12 grade range.
"The thing that I think is so fascinating about that is, when consolidation was done in the '60s, I'm not aware of anybody who said it was to save money or be more efficient," Tallman said. "It was to improve quality. And in fact, spending went up after consolidation."
The battles over that process are said to be legendary in the Statehouse because many smaller communities lost their districts, along with their local schools, which in many cases led to the towns themselves dissolving into what are now unincorporated villages.
Tallman said that although the bill does not call for any school buildings to close, many people in smaller communities are concerned that may be the result anyway.
"If you are a small community with a relatively small school, and you're brought into a larger community, a countywide community and you don't have the votes, and the rest of the district decides 'we could be more efficient if we didn't operate that little school in your town,' you've lost your recourse," he said. "So for better or worse, I think the reason people are concerned about consolidation is they don't want to lose their school."
The House Education Committee is scheduled to open hearings on the bill on Feb. 3.