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KASB optimistic about efficiency task force recommendations


Special to The Hays Daily News

While a task force on education efficiency commissioned by Gov. Sam Brownback has yet to write its final report, it appears the group's conclusions will have a fair amount of overlap with the recommendations of more traditional supporters of public education.

The task force had its final meeting Monday in Topeka, and Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards, was there taking notes.

"They did not make any specific recommendations that we would oppose," Tallman said Tuesday.

However, he noted on numerous issues, the governor's task force will recommend further study, and KASB might want its own parallel task force to react to other specifics as they come out.

"I think we were optimistic early on," Tallman said. "Efficiency is one of those things everyone is for -- until you start defining it. We felt that if the committee understood districts are already looking at ways to become more efficient -- and that in cases where it doesn't look like it, it's often because of state and federal laws -- they'd see we didn't need a very heavy-handed action by the state.

Even before its first meeting, the task force came under fire from groups such as the Kansas National Education Association for its makeup, which was heavy on accountants from the private sector and didn't include any educators or school employees.

In response, Brownback appointed Brian Pekarek, former superintendent of the Clifton-Clyde School District in north-central Kansas and now superintendent in Iola.

Pekarek said he had some concerns at the beginning but, overall, is pleased with what the task force came up with.

"I feel pretty good," he said. "I was pleased at the progression of the committee. I had a lot of reservations about where we were going and what we were doing. ... My assumption was I would have to deconstruct a lot of this for them and explain how school budgeting is different than business budgeting and that just cutting costs isn't the answer, but they were already there."

Among the broad recommendations coming out of the governor's task force were:

* Move to a two-year budget cycle for schools, allowing districts to plan their spending further into the future.

Tallman said his group supports that idea -- multiyear funding is a recommendation the KASB's committee made to the governor's task force in November -- but he is careful to caution a multiyear funding plan contains no guarantees.

"It sounds great for stability and certainty," Tallman said. "But it's subject to changes in the economy and other factors; one Legislature can't bind a future one and can't spend money it doesn't have."

* "Regionalization" of some school district functions.

"We didn't want to say 'consolidation,' and were really specific on that," Pekarek said.

The task force didn't discuss traditional consolidation of school districts but rather ways some district office functions, such as payroll, could be combined.

Tallman noted before the mass consolidation of districts in 1966, "We had county superintendents and a board, in some cases, for each school. I think the perception at the time was that all this was another layer of bureaucracy. What do you really gain by going back to something we moved away from 50 years ago? If you're just looking at org charts, it makes sense -- but if you're saying we believe in local control and local communities, you come up with a different set of answers."

* Provide funds for districts that want to have efficiency audits.

"It's a lot of work and a huge commitment, but the product is very good," said Pekarek, who was superintendent of the Clifton-Clyde school district when that district and another half-dozen statewide volunteered to let the Legislative Division of Post-Audit pore through their finances.

Pekarek said the state should provide some funding to encourage districts to undergo such audits.

"We think these should be voluntary but encouraged," Tallman said. "And the recommendations of the audit should be voluntary."

Other issues discussed but not recommended include:

* Eliminating the practice of using state money to pay for a portion of districts' debt payments, or budgeting a set amount and allowing a statewide committee to decide which projects would get a portion.

"We're strongly in favor of the state continuing to do that, to ensure low-wealth districts aren't priced out of being able to meet their needs," Tallman said, acknowledging "critics say it's an open-ended obligation and some say districts are over-building, but we don't think we're seeing that."

Pekarek noted his Iola district has the oldest school buildings in the state: the high school is 100 years old, and the youngest building was constructed in 1950.

"People didn't want an open checkbook," Pekarek said. "My question was who would decide the need, given a set amount to spend each year; don't the voters in each district already decide that (when voting on a bond issue)?"

* Adopting a single, statewide data system for all school districts and the Kansas Department of Education to use.

"There's already a state system, but many districts also have their own, which are compatible with the state system," Tallman said. "Districts have invested considerable resources in those systems, and there were questions whether one big system would be any better -- the state's new vehicle registration system doesn't inspire confidence that one big system would be better."

"I thought it would be great, but what about the cost?" Pekarek said.