GOP legislative leaders go after Dennis; education advocates defend him

Senate President Susan Wagle and House Speaker Ron Ryckman say Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis should be placed on administrative leave and have called for further investigation into what they say is the misallocation of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation funding. 

Dennis, a 50-year Kansas State Department of Education employee and leading figure in school finance, has maintained the funds were allocated in accordance with the wishes of the Legislature as a way to ensure that population-dense school districts got their fair share of transportation funding.  

The State Board of Education has scheduled a meeting for 1 p.m. Friday to consider the allegations that Wagle and Ryckman outlined in a letter to State Board Chairman Jim Porter. 

Kansas’ leading education organizations, including KASB, issued a statement, saying “Dennis has been the best friend public education and the kids of Kansas have had. Our Legislature and all Kansans should remain focused on the serious issues facing public schools rather than attacking a man being accused of ensuring Kansas kids have a safe ride to school.” Here is a link to the full statement. Numerous legislators also rose to Dennis’ defense in tweets and statements. 

The dispute stems from a December Legislative Post Audit that evaluated transportation funding in the K-12 system. 

The audit found that KSDE has been following a practice of providing a minimum per pupil amount of transportation aid for large, densely populated school districts that is not authorized by current state law. In the 2017-18 school year, this provided roughly $10 million more in transportation aid than is authorized by the formula.  

The audit recommended that the minimum aid calculation be eliminated unless the Legislature specifically authorizes it, but also says there is evidence that large, densely populated districts may be short-changed by the current aid formula and that the additional payments appear justified by cost data.  

Here is a link to the full report. HB 2445 has been filed this legislative session that would put the calculation into state law. 

In KSDE’s response to the audit, Dennis agreed with its recommendation to codify the process of calculating transportation funding and provided an historical explanation of how the allocation was arrived at. 

“Many years ago, at a time the Legislature was discussing the school finance formula, they were making every effort to not discriminate against high-density school districts. KSDE staff was called to the State Capitol and told that the purpose and intent was for KSDE to flatten out the line of best fit so that it would not be disadvantageous to those school districts with high-density per pupil. At that time, legislators were having difficulty defining in writing the line of best fit for high-density school districts. However, they verbally provided KSDE with their definition of line of best fit. 

“The theory legislators had at that time was to split the line of best fit for high-density school districts by choosing the median expenditure as a minimum level. That theory has been in effect for many years. This calculation has been explained and reviewed before numerous legislative committees over the years and has met their criteria.” 

But in their letter, Wagle and Ryckman, both Republicans, said KSDE had no authority to set this calculation. They said the alleged misallocation, calculated over decades, could total more than $400 million. 

The two legislative leaders said they weren’t questioning Dennis’ honesty, but added, “We are deeply troubled that KSDE, under the apparent direction of Mr. Dennis, has intentionally misallocated hundreds of millions of dollars.”  

They called on the State Board of Education to place Dennis on administrative leave with pay pending an audit and possibly an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. They also said anyone else in KSDE staff should be placed on leave “who knowingly participated in this misallocation.”

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