Last week the Kansas House Education Budget Committee heard testimony on HB 2728. The key provision of this bill is that Kansas school districts would be required to have a minimum of 10,000 students. It also requires conforming to a common chart of accounts, and that school finance information be placed on the internet.
Kansas Senator Chris Steineger, a Democrat from Kansas City, testified as neutral on the bill. He said that Kansas is “bottom-heavy” in terms of the number of governmental units, and school districts are part of these. He said that in the business world, mergers and consolidations take place every day as companies seek to become stronger and more competitive. Voluntary consolidation can be haphazard. He advocated for a business-like approach.
Kansas State Board of Education Member Walt Chappell testified as a proponent of the bill. He said this is a time to “think outside the box.” We need to make good use of the limited resources we have, he said. This reorganization is not a new concept, he said, as it has been thought through for years.
“We’re in a real financial bind,” Chappell said. After Montoy (the Kansas Supreme Court decision in 2005 that ordered increased spending on schools), he said we’ve been spending more that we have revenue coming in. The Montoy spending amounted to an extra $1 billion, and that’s not sustainable. A second factor is that we’ve hired 6,000 new employees in Kansas school districts, with only 2,000 of those being teachers. He said that $587 million went to non-instructional staff.
Chappell said that the goal of the bill is not to close schools and shut down small towns. “We need to make best uses of the resources we already have.” The goal is to not duplicate administrative services and non-instructional activities and staff. We should reduce those expenses and put more money in the classroom for the teachers and the kids. This bill would would give students an opportunity for a balanced curriculum, with opportunities for vocational education or college prep. Teachers would be able to do just one or two class preparations instead of four or five. “Right now our teachers in small schools, many of them are stretched thin. They have to prepare for several different subjects in each day. It’s very hard for them.”
We’re trying to find a way to optimize instructional and non-instructional resources so that we don’t duplicate services, Chappell said. This could lead to savings of $300 million per year.
Chappell said that based on research from school superintendents who have examined this issue, savings are found not by closing schools, not by shutting down small Kansas towns, but by making sure that you don’t duplicate services and resources for administrative and non-instructional activities.
Chappell said that only about half of school district employees are teachers. By becoming more efficient in administrative tasks, more resources could be spent on teachers. Removing duplication of effort is the key to this goal.
The 10,000 student minimum size of the new school districts is important. There are many small school districts in Kansas, he said. A large district creates a large and sustainable tax base. Small school districts are not able to offer a sustainable curriculum. Large districts are also able to obtain the benefits of the division of labor. Finally, combining two very small districts to create a district that’s still very small doesn’t do much to realize the efficiencies of a larger district.
Chappell’s written testimony is available at Kansas School Reorganization Testimony.
Testifying as an opponent to this bill, Kansas Association of School Boards lobbyist Mark Tallman said “School districts are not merely administrative units. They are units of government.” He expressed concern that the administrative office, where school board meetings are held, would be far away from many people.
Tallman showed a map of a hypothetical large district in northwestern Kansas, which he said would encompass 16,000 square miles. This district would lose $21 million in low-enrollment weighting. He presented evidence that the savings in administrative costs would not be large. He also said that since teachers in larger school districts are paid more, the teachers in the new, large districts would need to be paid more. He also said there’s no evidence that these larger districts would improve students achievement.
Linda Kenne, superintendent of the Victoria school system, said that the bill does not mention the word “child.” She urged the committee to replace the word “school district” with the word “children” in the proposed legislation, saying that this changes the connotation of the bill. She said that education is not an expense, it is an investment.
Bill Bohne, vice president of USD 449 school board (Easton, in Leavenworth County), said that the goal of consolidation is to save money, not improve education. He said that consolidation, in fact, will cost money. He referenced a Kansas Association of School Boards document that said that teacher pay will move to that of the highest district. Differences in the textbooks used will result in more cost.
He also claimed that the regional education service centers created by this bill would violate the Kansas Constitution, going so far as to say this bill makes local boards of education a “sham.” He also said that the accounting provisions of the bill would violate the Kansas Constitution. He said this about the changes: “In effect, you have removed us from the general supervision of the state board.”
Bohne said that his district has no desire to join with USD 453 (Leavenworth) schools, which he said has much lower performance.
In conclusion, Bohne stated: “Kansas public education has a national ranking many other states are envious of — we are ranked seventh in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) scores. And if we compare ourselves internationally, Kansas is ranked sixth in the world in fourth grade math and eighth in the world in 8th grade math.” He said that the future of our education is sacrificed by this bill.
In questions, Representative Gene Rardin asked Chappell about how his claimed savings of $300 million is more than a legislative post audit study said might be achieved. Chappell replied that the study looked at smaller levels of consolidation that what this current bill provides for. He also reiterated that the bill is not about closing schools. He said that the savings are in the areas of bus scheduling, payroll, food service, and maintenance of buildings, for example. He referred to the Kennedy and Little study, which found savings of $1,000 to $2,000 per student.
Chappell also said that the NAEP scores tell us that only one in three students are proficient, notwithstanding Bohne’s claim.
KASB’s Tallman backed up Bohne’s claim of the ranking of Kansas schools by citing an analysis that showed Kansas students doing very well compared to international students. Committee member Arlen Siegfreid made this remark about this claimed lofty performance of Kansas schools on the international stage: “I’m also a little amazed that we managed to lose a lawsuit on the suitability of funding of education while we’re hitting those numbers.”
Written testimony in support of this bill was provided by two former Kansas school officials, and is available at Morris L. Reeves testimony on Kansas School Reorganization and Gary W. Norris Testimony on Kansas School Reorganization .
Tallman’s contention that school districts are “units of government” is at odds with most public school officials, who bristle at the use of the term “government schools.” This hearing also lets us know that KASB uses NAEP scores when it suits their cause. Otherwise, it dismisses them as not meaningful. The biggest problem for Kansas schools spending advocates is the discrepancy between the rapidly rising Kansas state assessment scores and the flat or slowly rising NAEP scores.
Bohne — the Easton school board member — made some claims about the constitutionality of the bill that are not reasonable, in my opinion. His claims that consolidation will increase cost instead of reducing it are not based on actual evidence.
Consolidation is a controversial issue, no doubt about it. The school spending lobby, lead by KASB’s Tallman and Kansas National Education Association (or KNEA, the teachers union) resists any change, no matter how beneficial it might be. In the issue of KNEA’s Under the Dome Today that covered this hearing, we see the appeal to emotion instead of reason: “in northwest Kansas, 18 counties would need to merge together as one district!” The newsletter also asks: “which towns will die? How many hours will kids spend on buses? How many miles will our high school students have to drive to reach the new high school?”