Local Columnists

Dave Helling: Bigger forces could compel small Kansas schools to merge

Columnist Dave Helling writes: Republican Gov. Sam Brownback (left) and his Democratic challenger, Paul Davis, both oppose forcing small Kansas school districts to merge, but such consolidation may be inevitable because of slumping tax revenue.
Columnist Dave Helling writes: Republican Gov. Sam Brownback (left) and his Democratic challenger, Paul Davis, both oppose forcing small Kansas school districts to merge, but such consolidation may be inevitable because of slumping tax revenue. The Wichita Eagle

Gov. Sam Brownback opened the first debate of his re-election campaign by rejecting any plan that would require smaller Kansas school districts to merge.

“No forced consolidation of rural schools!” the Republican thundered.

As a political tactic, the tried-and-true gambit of protecting the country schoolhouse probably will produce mixed results. Brownback’s Democratic opponent, Paul Davis, quickly offered a me-too, yielding an inevitable exchange over who was more committed to the small-school ideal. Expect more of this before Election Day.

As a policy matter, though, the promise is more interesting.

Rural Kansans fiercely protect their schools. The small-town school is a meeting place, a social hub, a Friday night football fixture, a part of a community’s history. Close the high school, and you might as well close up downtown.

Yet rural Kansans are also clear-eyed about the expense of this extravagance. They know what Brownback and Davis failed to mention: Small-school costs aren’t completely borne by small-town taxpayers. They’re subsidized by wealthier, suburban Kansans, particularly those in Johnson County.

Johnson Countians have accepted this bargain, albeit grudgingly. The county’s lawyers and dentists and accountants have long agreed to provide revenue to keep the Attica Bulldogs in business, as long as their own suburban districts remained healthy.

Now the deal is under pressure.

The Brownback tax cuts reduced taxes for everyone, but the biggest cuts were reserved for small-business owners, whose state income taxes fell to zero.

That cut was aimed precisely at Johnson County. It was designed to entice small businesses to move from Missouri to Prairie Village and Olathe.

If jobs and businesses move to Johnson County, there would be plenty of money for every school district. If not, something would have to give.

So far, the verdict is cloudy. A major reason Kansas revenue has fallen short of expectations is uneven growth in the state’s richest county, the one paying for its schools and those of smaller counties.

Kansas USD 512, the Shawnee Mission District, has more than 26,000 students. Kansas USD 511 folo, Attica, has less than 200. That enrollment gap may be a luxury in a state that can’t afford it.

Consolidation of rural schools won’t be “forced.” But driven by slumping revenue and inefficiencies that are so often unavoidable in smaller districts, it may be inevitable.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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