Kansas task force scrutinizes school spending

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s school efficiency task force met for the first time Monday and gathered ideas that ranged from streamlining computer and payroll systems to privatizing some employees.

The group heard a broad range of subjects affecting the 268 school districts in Kansas.

Task force chairman Ken Willard, who also serves on the Kansas Board of Education, said the group’s work is important not just for taxpayers but also for Kansas children, who will be taxpayers someday.

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank advocating limited government, urged the group to discuss the red tape that can drive up the cost of education.

School improvement is not just about increasing funding, he said.

“There’s no question that money matters,” Trabert said. “It’s how you spend the money and not how much.”

Trabert said that “simply spending a little bit less isn’t going to have an impact on the outcome.”

He pointed out that districts’ spending habits aren’t always their preference. They are dictated by statute and cultural practices.

There is room for improvement, he said, noting that Jefferson County has six school districts serving about 3,577 students. It means there are six different transportation plans in a 557-square mile region. There are six districts handling payroll, computer systems and cafeteria services.

Districts throughout Kansas might benefit from streamlining or sharing costs, he said. He brought up the concept of privatizing services and sharing purchasing power.

Small, large, rural, suburban and urban districts all have places to be more efficient, he said. One large district spends $92,619 on a psychologist’s salary, he said, while smaller districts pay four times as much for paper towels and other non-classroom materials.

“Do you really need local control over where you buy your trash bags from?” he asked.

But any of the concepts faces a unique set of hurdles.

The Kansas City, Kan., School District considered a sweeping privatization plan for employees such as custodians, cafeteria workers and bus drivers. The plan was quickly shelved, however, after outrage from the public.

Unlike many teachers, a large contingent of such workers lived in the impoverished district. Board members said at the time that they didn’t want to wholesale cut large groups of local taxpayers, especially when they had worked so long to persuade teachers to move into Kansas City, Kan.

The task force has faced sharp criticism from Kansas Democrats, who argue that teachers and administrators have not been included on the panel.

The 10-member group includes six certified public accountants, including Steve Anderson, Brownback’s budget director. Many members of the group have served on school boards or education committees across the state.

Anderson had sharp questions for Mark Tallman, lobbyist of the Kansas Association of School Boards, who pointed out that Kansas students perform well nationally.

Tallman told the task force that spending priorities can be changed, but Kansas has long prized local control — giving elected school boards the ability to make the best decisions for their constituents.

Anderson questioned Tallman’s presentation about local control and high student achievement given that more than two dozen districts are suing the state, alleging that funding cuts have hurt student achievement.

“We can’t talk one way and operate another,” Anderson said.

State education officials said it would be better if school finance plans were passed before the eleventh hour.

A multi-year school finance plan would let districts know where they stand and how to manage their money from year to year.

“I think school districts have been accumulating fund balances for the same reasons that many businesses are — uncertainty. School board members are very conservative people,” said Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis. “Most of them believe they are in a healthier situation if they have reserves.”

The group includes Overland Park resident Jim Churchman, who previously served on the Olathe school board.

Churchman said that as a parent and board member, he has noticed that the district’s hands are often tied by inflexible rules. Administrators, he said, should have the ability to redirect funds for things like instructional materials if the real need is another special educator or paraprofessional for a classroom.

“To me, it’s not the way any of us run a business or a household,” he said.

Churchman said he’ll look at dollars and cents, but he’ll view his work with a parent’s eye as well.

“I think this is an opportunity to look at things from a different perspective,” he said.

Willard said the group would meet again Nov. 9 and probably again in December before presenting its findings to Brownback. The findings are expected to play a role in the 2013 legislative session.