From 286 to 40 school districts?

Advocate pushes consolidation as money-saver

By The Mercury

Given the regularity with which the Kansas Board of Education makes funding requests of the Kansas Legislature in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it seemed unusual that a former member of that board doesn’t think the widely publicized funding shortfall is a problem.

“We already have enough money in the system,” Walt Chappell, a state BOE member from Wichita from 2009 to 2012, told the Topeka Capital-Journal last week. “It’s a matter of how it’s used,” he added.

His comments came in connection with documents he has filed in the controversial school funding lawsuit. In that lawsuit, a coalition of school districts contends that the state is underfunding public schools by hundreds of millions of dollars. The case now is in the hands of the Kansas Supreme Court because a Shawnee County district court in January ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

What’s as intriguing as Mr. Chappell’s brief challenging the plaintiffs’ claims are some of the ways he says the state could save more than $800 million a year. Among them are requiring teachers to work longer hours — at least eight a day at school and at least six periods a day in the classroom — and reducing funding for low-income students.

A staunch opponent of the Common Core curriculum, Mr. Chappell wants the court to ban Common Core’s math and reading standards.

His most controversial proposal, however — the one most likely to save substantial amounts of money — involves large-scale school consolidation. He would, for example, consolidate the state’s 286 school districts into roughly 40 districts of at least 10,000 students. The Manhattan-Ogden School District now falls several thousand students short of that threshold. 

Though many legislators, particularly those disinclined to boost K-12 funding, would applaud several of Mr. Chappell’s proposals, lawmakers enter the consolidation discussion at their peril. School consolidation could well save hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but it also could cost a lot of legislators their jobs.  It’s one thing to acknowledge the savings, it’s quite another to merge entire school districts, in the process stripping many communities of entities integral not just to their identity and their prosperity but in some cases even to their survival.

Importantly, Mr. Chappell isn’t appealing to legislators. His views are addressed to justices, who will consider his data and his views along with other arguments and evidence on behalf of both sides.

Those who decide this case have a tough job, but they might be relieved that school consolidation isn’t their problem, at least not yet

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