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Superintendents speak out
School district consolidation bill HB2504 raises strong objections
new vlc school consolidation old districts
These two maps compare the current school districts in Kansas, and the proposed new districts if HB2504 passes and realignment is implemented. - photo by Courtesy KASB

“I have to ask, why is this bill being introduced?  Is it to fix a school problem, or is it to fix a budget problem?  Because nowhere in the bill is there any indication that it is in the best interest of the kids of this state,”

--   USD 112 Central Plains Superintendent Greg Clark

There was no shortage of information presented at the Hoisington Chamber of Commerce coffee Thursday morning. USD 431 Hoisington Superintendent Bill Lowry’s legislative report included news about a bill that many have expressed concern over since the state legislature resumed session earlier this month.  Earlier in the week, the Kansas Association of School Boards sent out an alert to members about three bills, one of which could completely change the face of public education in Barton County

One county, one district
Topping the list is HB2504, which according to the KASB, would require every county with 10,000 or fewer students to be realigned into a single district and those with over 10,000 must have at least 1,500 students per district.  This measure will be considered at 1:30 p.m. Wed. Feb. 3. KASB says the bill would change long-standing school district communities.
“For Barton County, that essentially translates to one school district for the entire county,” he said.  
If the bill were to pass in its present form, the KASB would be asked to oversee a redesign of districts by July 1, 2017, which would then take effect the next year.
Boundaries would follow county lines.
In Barton County, there are three districts that pull students from within the county, and two that pull students from at least two counties. In 2010, Claflin, Bushton, Holyrood and Lorraine school districts consolidated into USD 112 Central Plains, which draws students from Barton, Rice, Russell, Lincoln and Ellsworth counties. The graduating class of 2015 was the first post-consolidation class, and according to Central Plains High School Principal Toby Holmes, the closest-knit class so far.  
These students, along with students from Otis-Bison USD 404 at the far west of the county, as well as students from Pawnee Rock who currently attend school at Larned or Macksville would be legally required to attend school within the county, or transfer to a private or parochial school or pursue their educations at home if the bill were to pass.  

Bad news for small towns
USD 112 Central Plains Superintendent Greg Clark responded to the Tribune Thursday afternoon, stating he completely supports KASB’s opposition to the bill, because if passed, it would spell the end of Central Plains.  He has prepared written testimony for the KASB and for the legislature in advance of the upcoming hearing.
The district, which encompasses 580 square miles, includes families who keep their students in the district by choice, despite the fact they work in more highly populated towns like Great Bend, Ellsworth and Russell, Clark said.  They prefer having their children attend school in a smaller district like Central Plains because of the opportunities, both personal and academic, it provides.
“Even on our worst day, we are still some students best hope,” he said.  “Why are we trying to take away opportunities from our kids.”
Students, he said, who are now involved in sports and other club and extra curricular activities could lose out in larger districts where fewer openings and more competition exist..   
Clark foresees the bill could cause economic effects that for some towns could be devastating.  He expressed concern that some families may choose to leave communities, and that could hurt home prices and lead to business failures.

Effects if passed
Lowry fielded a few questions from those at the gathering.  While the legislature has suggested that more than one school board could exist within such a district, Lowry expressed doubt in the practicality of such an arrangement.  Essentially, he said, a new board would need to be created.  
One listener asked what such a consolidation could mean for Hoisington in light of the new Lincoln Elementary School that is scheduled to start construction this year.  
“It would become the concern of the new board at that point,” Lowry replied. According to the KASB alert, “Bond debt will remain with territory that originally approved; so part of new district may be taxed for previous bond issues.”
“Elementary schools usually are the last schools to be eliminated in a consolidation, however,” he added.  
But if efficiency is the goal, high schools would be the first to be consolidated, he said, followed by middle schools, and so on.  The bill requires a complete inventory of all real property and vehicles to be sent to the central office.  Whatever is determined to not be needed by the district would be sold.  But instead of the newly formed district conducting the sale and retaining the proceeds, the state would require it to be handed over to the state to be sold.  
School administrators and supervisory service employees would be limited to only 120 percent of the number of employees of the district with the largest enrollment in the year prior to realignment, according to KASB’s interpretation of the bill.  
This, according to USD 428 Great Bend Superintendent Brad Reed, would not be efficient.  With far-flung districts, operating out of one office would be difficult, so satellite offices would be required, and several assistant superintendents would be needed, as well as additional support personnel, eliminating any benefit to consolidation for the sake of efficiency.

Motives questioned
“I do worry that bills like these will cause us to take our eye off the ball when it comes to budget,” Lowry said, wrapping up his report.  He pointed to recent fund sweeps by the state from KDOT and the Kansas Children’s Initiative Fund.
“It seems that any money found laying around is being swept into the state’s general fund, and this can’t be sustained much longer,” he said.
The sentiment was echoed by Reed, who called the bill a red herring.
“It’s an awful bill,” he said.  “It won’t improve education, make it more efficient, or even save any money.”  
The last time the state made a large push for consolidation was in the 1960s, and that was for the purpose of improving education, Reed pointed out.  Those consolidations did not save money any more than these would.  
“Kansas has a great education system now.  We score in the top 10 in just about any metric you choose, but when it comes to funding, we score down in the 30s by state.  Our problems are more revenue driven, and a bill like this isn’t the answer.”  
USD 355 Superintendent Ben Jacobs was contacted by the Great Bend Tribune, but was unavailable for comment.  

Hearing set
HB2504 will be considered at 1:30 p.m. Wed. Feb. 3.  at the capitol in Topeka.  KASB opposes all three bills and officials with the organization plan to testify,
Other bills included in KASB’s alert were HB2486, which would create a legislative committee that would approve how much of a school bond project would be eligible for state aid; and
HB2457,which would expand a program that provides state tax credits for contributions to take students out of public school and send them to private school.