School leaders pack hearing room to oppose district realignment measure

School leaders from across the state on Wednesday packed a legislative hearing room to overflowing to oppose a bill that they said would close schools and destroy communities.

The House Education Committee took no action on House Bill 2504 after lengthy testimony.

State Rep. John Bradford, R-Lansing, the author of the bill, said the measure would save $173 million over 10 years by reducing the number of school districts in Kansas from 286 to 132.

“It is past time to look at possible realignments, considering the fact that we are faced with finding efficiencies in state government and eliminating wasteful practices,” Bradford said.

Mike Howerton, a retired businessman from Labette County, said his county was a “poster child” to merge districts. With a student population of 3,850 students, there are four districts there.

But state Rep. Sue Boldra, R-Hays, said if Labette County residents want to merge districts they can already do that on the local level.

Opponents of the bill said the estimated savings paled in comparison to the disruption and harm the legislation would inflict on the Kansas public education system.

Tom Benoit, Palco USD 269 school board member, and speaking on behalf of Schools for Quality Education, said school districts have made many moves to become more efficient by reducing administrators, counselors, maintenance personnel and secretaries.

He said the bill would result in numerous schools being shut down which will add to the transportation time of many students.

Shawn Cardin, school board member of Central Heights USD 288 in Richmond, questioned the logic of the portion of the bill that says a realigned school district cannot exceed 120 percent of the number of administrators and supervisors of the school district with the largest enrollment in the county.

“How does this seem like a good idea to consolidate four current districts into one and yet only have no more than 120 percent of administrators and supervisory service employees? Do you think it is possible to still efficiently run a district which will essentially double in size but with only 20 percent more staff currently at Ottawa USD 290?”

Lori Johnson, a school board member for Girard USD 248, said consolidation would devastate local small businesses and communities while saving little.

“Compared to the negative financial impact it will have on Kansas communities, it is simply not worth the cost,” she said.

About a dozen people spoke against the bill including six school board members, Kansas Families for Education and G.A. Buie, who is executive director of United School Administrators of Kansas and was also speaking on behalf of the Kansas School Superintendents' Association and Kansas Association of Special Education Administrators.

Buie noted that school districts have already been merging — there are 20 fewer districts now than 20 years ago.

“Communities are making these difficult decisions on their own. They are creating relationships that make the most sense for their students as well as their communities,” he said.

Nearly 30 submitted written testimonies opposed to the bill, including KASB. Here is a link to that testimony. KASB also held a briefing on the legislation to several dozen school officials just hours before the committee meeting.

Three presenters favored the bill and one was neutral — Dave Trabert, head of the Kansas Policy Institute.

February 4, 2016