Steve Rose

Common sense calls for school consolidation in Kansas

The state of Kansas has too many schools for its student population, and could, by consolidating districts, save up to $129 million a year.
The state of Kansas has too many schools for its student population, and could, by consolidating districts, save up to $129 million a year. MCT

There is a scent of hypocrisy in the air.

The two right-wingers who were appointed along with seven others across the political spectrum to a special commission in Kansas, the K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission, are talking out of both sides of their mouths.

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, and Mike O’Neal, president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, have failed to consider the greatest inefficiency in K-12 education because it is a hotly charged topic, while they rail on schools for spending too much.

The commission, which will make its recommendations in January, has nibbled around the edges when it comes to saving money . The hard-liners have ducked for cover on the most obvious source of savings.

That’s ironic because O’Neal has stated publicly: “It is not how much money is spent on schools, it is how money is spent on schools.” He and Trabert reject the idea that schools need funding restored to previous levels. They maintain schools can learn to live with less.

Indeed.

Then, why haven’t they brought up the big elephant in the room by now?

And that is that the state has too many schools for its student population, and could, by consolidating districts, save up to $129 million a year. That savings would occur, according to a non-partisan study in 2010 by the Legislative Post Audit Committee, if the number of districts were reduced from 293 to 152. (There are 286 districts today because of voluntary consolidations since the audit was conducted.)

That’s worth repeating. Up to $129 million can be saved in Kansas by consolidation of schools. That is from a study four years ago. It needs updating by a completely different group.

The commission will have met for a year, and the topic of consolidation has not even been seriously discussed.

Oh, there was recently a feeble attempt to broach the subject. On the agenda for a meeting was this item: “Continue and consider enhancing the incentives for school district cooperation AND consolidation.” (The word “and” was in caps.)

Voluntary consolidation through incentives is a discussion worth having. The Kansas Association of School Boards recommends incentives for districts that voluntarily consolidate.

But let’s get real. Voluntary consolidations, even with incentives, would likely occur only in a small number of districts and, thus, would have a negligible effect on statewide school expenditures.

What we need is for this commission to take an honest, objective, and comprehensive look at consolidation of schools in Kansas.

For political reasons, we all know any recommendations for consolidation likely would go nowhere. Politicians run for cover when faced with doing the right thing versus how their constituents would react. That goes for both the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates, in particular.

But, really, how can commissioners on efficiency look themselves in the mirror if they don’t at least explore the critical topic?

This is not just a rural issue. We all know of districts where there are hardly any students. It is urban, as well.

Does Topeka, for example, need five school districts? Probably not.

Closer to home, does Johnson County need six school districts? By merging De Soto with Shawnee Mission, Spring Hill with Blue Valley and Gardner-Edgerton with Olathe, the county could do with three districts. Think of the administrative cost savings, as well as a plethora of other efficiencies that would come from such consolidations.

There are a lot of emotions attached to the idea of consolidation. I am not so naïve as to believe that the patrons of the smaller districts would be thrilled about consolidation, even to save a bundle.

But a commission appointed to find savings that does not even consider the greatest inefficiency of all can’t be taken seriously. This goes double for those commissioners who espouse savings as their mantra.

Reach Steve Rose, a longtime Johnson County columnist, at srose@kc.rr.com.

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