TOPEKA — The Kansas Board of Education rebuffed demands Friday from Republican legislative leaders to suspend a deputy education commissioner implicated in the diversion of millions of dollars in state transportation funding to school districts in violation of state law.
A majority on the state Board of Education gave a vote of confidence to Dale Dennis, who has worked for the Kansas State Department of Education for half a century. The 9-1 decision to keep Dennis in place after nearly two hours of closed-door meetings was applauded by as many as 100 public school administrators who packed into the state board’s office across the street from the Statehouse.
The Board of Education unanimously recommended a new transparency process be developed to remove doubts about financial work at the Department of Education.
“We’re looking forward to putting this behind us,” said Board of Education Chairman Jim Porter, Fredonia.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said the Board of Education ignored a legislative audit proving $9.7 million annually was being appropriated in violation of state law. He said the Board of Education refused to embrace a wider forensic audit to determine if other financial problems existed and closed ranks with a cherished employee.
“They didn’t address the audit. Are they that arrogant?” Denning said. “This is about the skirting of the legislative process. It’s my understanding they have no checks and balances over there.”
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat running for governor, said the Board of Education acted appropriately.
“Dale Dennis is the definition of a true public servant,” Kelly said. “We need more dedicated advocates like Dale who put our kids first.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, joined with Denning and other GOP legislators to urge the Board of Education to suspend Dennis with pay pending a forensic audit to determine whether other financial irregularities existed in allocation of billions of dollars annually by the state to public schools.
Four former Kansas governors — Republicans Mike Hayden and Bill Graves, Democrats Kathleen Sebelius and John Carlin — sent a pre-emptive letter to the 10-member Board of Education expressing unqualified support for Dennis.
The dispute involving Dennis revolves around distribution of $9.7 million in special transportation aid to more than two-dozen districts serving dense population areas. GOP legislative leaders estimated the total amount of unauthorized expenditures during the past few decades could surpass $400 million.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, the Senate Education Committee chairwoman, said the paid suspension of Dennis should have been viewed as a standard procedure before accountants conducted a thorough audit of school funding. It’s important to restore faith in financial integrity of the appropriations process, she said.
“My hope is that, you know, this isn’t the worst misappropriation of funds in the state,” said Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican. “What we are trying to do is find out what the breadth, the scope is. How deep? How long? We’re trying to get to the bottom of it.”
A backdrop to this scuffle is the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision in October 2017 that state aid to K-12 public schools approved by the Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback was unconstitutionally insufficient. The 2018 Legislature was ordered to alter the finance formula and infuse the system with enough money to achieve compliance with the Kansas Constitution.
Brownback, while sharply critical of the court’s action, asked the Legislature in January to increase annual appropriations to public schools by $600 million within five years.
The transportation funding allocations, confirmed in a legislative audit completed in December, apparently have existed since the 1980s.
Legislative auditors recommended the special appropriation be written into Kansas law by lawmakers. Bills to accomplish that statutory adjustment have been introduced in the Senate and House.
Dennis, 80, said the Department of Education took steps necessary to forward the extra transportation aid to districts at the verbal direction of a state legislator without passage of a specific law. Dennis said the practice had subsequently been discussed in House and Senate hearings through the years.
In response to the legislative audit limited to transportation funding, Republican lawmakers spoke with Attorney General Derek Schmidt about potential of a criminal investigation and asked the Board of Education to suspend Dennis.
Public school superintendents drove hundreds of miles to Topeka to deliver an extraordinary expression of support for the deputy commissioner.
“I’m not surprised at all,” said Ulysses Superintendent Dave Younger. “There’s just as many at home who’d like to have been here.”
“I just believe in Mr. Dennis and the leadership he’s provided for kids in the state,” said Steve Karlin, superintendent of Garden City schools. “I haven’t worked with a better educator in my life.”
Cynthia Lane, superintendent of schools in Kansas City, Kan., said Dennis was recognized as the state’s strongest advocate of public education. She said there was no attempt to hide existence of the supplemental transportation, which this year earmarked $559,000 to her district.
The most substantial recipients of extra aid are Wichita, $2.9 million; Shawnee Mission, $1.1 million; Maize, $865,000; Olathe, $860,000; and Blue Valley, $597,000.
Colby Superintendent Katina Brenn said Dennis was a man of “integrity, character” who didn’t deserve to be the target of a political smear campaign.
“You can call him in the middle of the night if you have a question,” she said.