When Chris Zwilling of Scranton in Osage County thinks of school district consolidation, one of the first things he wonders is how long his two children would have to ride the bus.
“My second gut reaction is, lots of questions about, where are they going to house these students? Are the classroom sizes going to get even larger?” said Zwilling, an engineer whose children attend school at Carbondale Attendance Center in Santa Fe Trail USD 434.
A bill proposed by John Bradford, R-Lansing, would require districts like Santa Fe Trail and Shawnee County’s Silver Lake USD 372 to consolidate with neighbors. But Bradford said the bill wouldn’t close schools, and he is frustrated with any implications to the contrary.
“It does not fire principals, it does not cut school pensions, it does not close schools, it does not affect children or school buses,” he said Wednesday. “If we are looking for ways to save money in this state, we really do need to get serious.”
Bradford said he began exploring the idea of consolidation last summer, after the Legislature struggled to balance the state budget. The 2015 legislative session was the longest in the state’s history, with lawmakers struggling to find hundreds of millions of dollars.
House Bill 2504 would create countywide school districts across most of Kansas. Osage County would drop from five districts to one.
Bradford said this would save $170 million in a 10-year period, and that “nobody is affected at the school level.”
But not everyone is convinced. A key reason is the question of what would happen to school board seats.
The potential that seats would be redistributed countywide makes patrons like Zwilling nervous.
“How are they going to integrate all the various communities?” he asked, adding he would be concerned in his county that Osage City would end up with too much sway. “I see too many chances of abuse here.”
Bradford said his bill doesn’t require school boards to consolidate — just central administrations. All the bill says on the fate of the boards is that the Kansas State Board of Education would implement procedures for organizing and electing them.
It is unclear whether that would require other legal changes. Under current state law, a school district has one school board, which consists of seven seats distributed in proportion to where people reside. Otherwise, if Osage County districts consolidated, the result would be one superintendent and 35 board members.
The Kansas Association of School Boards estimates the effect of Bradford’s bill would be to drop from 286 to 132 school districts.
Any county with 10,000 or fewer students would have one countywide district. According to Kansas State Department of Education tallies, this applies to 98 counties, though 22 of them already are single-district counties. The Osage County districts, for example, have a total enrollment of 2,700. The county is approximately 705 square miles.
Kansas’ seven most populous counties — Shawnee, Johnson, Sedgwick, Wyandotte, Butler, Douglas and Leavenworth — would see some consolidation, too. Districts with fewer than 1,500 students would merge. Of the five districts based in Shawnee County, that means the 700-student Silver Lake would be too small to stand alone. It could become part of the 3,800-student Seaman USD 345, for example.
That prospect worries Shannon Bergmann, who grew up in Silver Lake and moved back so her children would attend the same schools.
“We live in Silver Lake because we want the small-town atmosphere,” Bergmann said. “We want the small-school advantages.”
If Silver Lake joined Seaman, she said she would worry tight school budgets eventually would lead to closing Silver Lake’s schools.
Bradford’s bill allows some flexibility for districts to make their own consolidation choices. Absent such choices, the Kansas State Board of Education would step in. The state board would be allowed to draw district boundaries that don’t exactly match county lines in cases where this would better suit school patrons.
Fort Leavenworth would be exempt from the bill because of its military funding. Nor would the legislation eliminate any of the state’s six Innovative School Districts (the Marysville, Hugoton, Concordia, McPherson, Blue Valley and Kansas City, Kan., districts).
Bills requiring school district consolidation don’t appear in the Legislature often because the topic is highly controversial.
Kansas pushed school districts to consolidate in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. As of the late 1950s, Kansas had approximately 2,800 districts. By the end of the 1960s, that number fell to a little more than 300. More recently, consolidation has increased since 2000, mostly along the Nebraska border and likely related to a combination of declining enrollment and school funding levels.
In 2010, the Legislature’s audit service probed the potential for savings through further consolidation.
After factoring in the potential for cost increases related to busing, for example, the auditors found eliminating 32 of the state’s smallest districts would save the state $15 million a year.
A more aggressive approach — restructuring 240 districts — could save $111 million a year if Kansas were to close more than a fifth of the state’s schools in the process.
The report found school districts and local taxpayers would have losses, however. Many would need to issue bonds to build new schools large enough to consolidate existing ones, for example. Auditors estimated the latter consolidation scenario would come with approximately $50 million annually in local costs.