As superintendent of the Bluestem school district in Leon, Joel Lovesee does more than go to meetings.
“I’m the curriculum director. I’m the PR guy. If the toilet’s clogged I go fix it. I change light bulbs,” he said. “On snow days, I’m driving the streets at 4 o’clock in the morning.”
“At small districts, you kind of do everything.”
A proposal in the Kansas Legislature aimed at saving money would do away with most small school districts in the state, reorganizing them into larger districts and eliminating many administrative offices, including several in the Wichita area.
House Bill 2504, introduced by Rep. John Bradford, R-Lansing, would create countywide school districts across most of the state, merging 286 districts into 132. When hearings begin Wednesday, it could prove one of the most controversial measures of this year’s session.
“One guy emailed me and said, ‘You must not want to get re-elected,’ ” Bradford said. “It’s not popular with some people, but I think it’s the right thing to do.”
According to a “best guess” analysis of the bill’s impact by the Kansas Association of School Boards, Butler County would go from nine school districts to five.
The report shows the Andover and Circle districts remaining intact, while Bluestem — which has about 500 students — would merge with Augusta, which has 2,300. Rose Hill likely would merge with Douglass, and Remington-Whitewater and Flinthills with El Dorado.
In Sedgwick County, Clearwater would merge with Mulvane, and Cheney would merge with Renwick, the report says.
And in Harvey County, four small school districts — Burrton, Sedgwick, Halstead and Hesston — likely would merge with Newton schools, forming a countywide district with about 6,000 students.
Across the state, any county with fewer than 10,000 students would be reorganized into one countywide district. According to state officials, this applies to 98 of the state’s 105 counties, though 22 of them already are single-district counties.
In the state’s seven most populous counties — Butler, Douglas, Johnson, Leavenworth, Sedgwick, Shawnee and Wyandotte — districts with fewer than 1,500 students would merge.
Bradford says reorganizing districts could save the state $173 million over 10 years.
“I did not originate the concept,” he said.
A 2010 legislative post audit found that consolidating school districts “has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of the system overall.” However, “equally significant issues would need to be addressed ... including the impact on students, individuals, districts and local communities,” it said.
The 2010 report urged state leaders to consider incentives to encourage districts to merge voluntarily, but until now no lawmaker has waded into the tricky political waters of school consolidation.
“I looked at it and said, ‘If we do this, is the pain worth it?’ “ Bradford said. His answer: Yes.
“It’s been 53 years since we looked at this. I think it’s time now to actually look at it and do something.”
Critics worry a mass consolidation would cede local control from school districts, endanger some schools and possibly devastate small communities.
“I have no doubt it would save money,” said Todd Dannenberg, president of the Clearwater school board. “But there’s a tradeoff between efficiency and doing what’s right for kids and communities.”
Bradford said his bill doesn’t propose many of the things critics are pointing to, including firing principals, closing schools, redrawing boundary lines or lengthening bus routes. Savings would come primarily from reducing the number of superintendents and central-office support staff and selling district property devoted solely to central administration.
“I agree with a lot of the comments: School is the lifeblood of some of these small towns,” he said. “If you took the school away, that town goes away. I understand that.
“I do not want to touch a single mascot.”
Lovesee, the Bluestem superintendent, said he doubts the savings would be as much as state officials project. Districts across the state already merge services or consolidate when possible, he said, such as with co-ops that deliver special education services.
Small districts in Butler County consolidate their professional development and food service management, he said, and negotiate collective contracts for fuel and other supplies.
“The smaller you are, the more you’re forced to look for savings because $5,000 can be huge,” he said.
More important, Lovesee said, is protecting programs that Bluestem families love, such as a farm with cows and chickens at the elementary school. Every year, fourth-graders at the school learn to keep a ledger and then visit Fleming Feed & Grain in Leon to buy grain and sell eggs.
“We’re doing things that Augusta’s not — not better, but different,” he said. “We find a way to connect with a lot of the community, and that’s what’s so unique about public ed.”