School consolidation push is on in Kansas

School Bus (KSN file photo)

WICHITA, Kansas – As lawmakers get back to work, the scramble is on to find about $800 Million by July first to get the Kansas bank account to zero. Will schools see a big change.

“Maybe,” says Republican representative Steven Brunk of Wichita. “And we agree to that the schools are the lifeblood of some of those communities, and nobody wants to see that changed. But… we have what I call clunky government. Very clunky government. We are still living in the 1960’s  administratively. And we can do better and we should.”

Brunk says lawmakers may consider several school changes to save money. Some of the changes include consolidation certain functions of schools, like consolidating the school districts from nearly 300, down to seven.

“There are seven service centers in the state of Kansas that perform ordering tasks and perform other functions,” says Brunk. “We could have seven school districts and still have schools maintain their own schools where they are.”

But others wonder what comes next if school functions like administration are consolidated.

“They are over concerned, as a lot of my conservative friends are, with how many pencils there are,” says Democrat House Member Jim Ward of Wichita. “And there are a lot of things we can do to be cheaper but they aren’t good. We can make class sizes at 35. That would be cheaper because we’d need fewer teachers but that’s not going to give us the outcomes we want, which is the test scores and the credentials, and the things that kids know. So that is efficient, we are spending less money, but we’re not getting the outcomes that we want and Kansans will demand.”

Ward says he will watch closely two different bills that are recommended by a Kansas Commission to study school efficiency. That commission came up with an idea to have schools audit themselves on student performance.

“Kids should be performing, and we need to monitor outcomes,” says Ward. “My fear is that some of this is, we are unhappy with the court case so we are going to study the standards as a way to avoid having to take the hard steps to fund our schools adequately.”

Ward is talking about a recent court decision that demands lawmakers fund about $500 more to schools. But, he says consolidation may not be the answer to come up with more money to both fix the budget and fix the Kansas budget.

“We need to take a look at the systemic issue of Kansas not having enough revenue,” says Ward. “We had some very large tax cuts in 2012, and we need to take another look at if we have enough money coming into the state.”

While Ward asks about tax cuts, Brunk says there is a second school of thought that needs to be considered.

“All of those things can be consolidated into an administrative merger and you just don’t need 286 different systems (school districts) to accomplish that,” says Brunk. “So, the short answer to your question, is, that there are extraordinary efficiencies that can be obtained which means savings of money. That money then that we do spend can go directly into the classroom where it impacts students, supporting and holding up teachers and students, not the system.”

Ward says he does not believe there will be a significant savings by consolidating school districts, when it comes to an administrative merger.

“I don’t think they will get to the numbers they think, by consolidation,” says Ward. “And there is another question to consider.  Do we want USD 259 to be combined with Maize and Goddard and Andover? That’s a highly controversial proposition. Are there some efficiencies we can do with purchasing and combining some of that? Sure. But you’re not going to see the kind of savings that (some) are talking about with those kind of smaller steps.”

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