The Alice in Wonderland approach to local schools took on new energy in Topeka recently when Rep. John Bradford introduced a bill for county-line consolidation of low-enrollment school districts. The Lansing Republican believes that
Kansas school districts with enrollments of less than 10,000 should be merged into single-county districts. This will save money, he said.
They always say this. The frontal assault on local education, led by the governor and his Republican crackpot fringe, is about saving money.
Only seven of the state’s 286 school districts have full time enrollments above 10,000, according to current figures from the Kansas Department of Education.
Of those high-enrollment (10,000+) districts, three are in Johnson County: Blue Valley USD 229 (enrollment, 22,550 rounded); Olathe USD 233 (29,000); Shawnee Mission USD 512 (27,660). The others are Wichita USD 259 (51,000) in Sedgwick County; Topeka USD 501 (14,170) in Shawnee County; Lawrence USD 497 (12,100) in Shawnee County; and Kansas City USD 500 (21,900) in Wyandotte County.
Their combined enrollment, 178,380, is a third (36 percent) of the state total public school enrollment, 491,500.
Excepting the state’s largest district, USD 259 in Wichita, the other six are in four northeast counties.
By Bradford’s plan, the rest are up for grabs.
One trouble with county-line consolidation is that dozens of Kansas school districts cross county lines. Squeezing them back in could be trouble.
Example: Of the 166 school districts in the state’s western two-thirds, much of it thinly populated, a third of those districts (56) cross county lines. For this report, the western twothirds is Kansas west of a line including Washington County south though Cowley County. This territory includes the ten school districts in Sedgwick County; seven of them share territory with Butler, Reno, Kingman, Sumner, Cowley and Harvey Counties.
In that western two-thirds, enrollments are heavily concentrated in 15 districts in Sedgwick and west Butler Counties.
More than 90 percent (138) of the remaining 151 school districts, have enrollments below 1,000. Some have less than 100 ‒ for example, Healy USD 468, in the northwest quarter of Lane County, with an enrollment of 71, takes in a chunk of Gove County to the north. The rest of Lane County is
Dighton USD 482, enrollment 228. Weskan USD 242, along the Colorado border in west Wallace County, has an enrollment of 95.
Through the Smoky Hills and across the High Plains and Ark River Lowlands, vast distances separate schools and their headquarter districts. In the early 2000s, the late Sen. Stan Clark, an Oakley Republican, confronted a consolidation proposal that, like nearly all others, ultimately meant closing buildings and increasing the distances between schools. “This would mean creating boarding schools and building dormitories,”
Clark said. “Is that what we want?”
Districts with territory in more than two counties include Smoky Valley, which takes in portions of McPherson, Saline and Rice Counties. Other three-county districts are Fowler USD 225 (Meade, Gray and Ford Counties), and Great Bend USD 428 (Barton, Stafford and Pawnee Counties).
Lincoln USD 298 takes portions of four counties: Lincoln, Saline, Ottawa and a couple of nicks in southern Mitchell County.
Incredibly, Holyrood USD 112 includes parts of FIVE counties: Ellsworth, Rice, Barton, Russell, and a tiny chip in southwest Lincoln County.
The Bradford plan invites mad dreams. There have been other such consolidation proposals, and in every case advocates find that political or geographic boundaries rarely coincide with economic ones. (Imagine the nightmare with bus routes, or cross-border schooling with other states…)
County-line consolidation would play havoc with school district tax bases, bond ratings and debt. Recreation districts, the base for financing countless programs, leagues, activities and facilities, are often configured along school district boundaries, with any mill levies processed through school budgets. Districts now cross county lines as a matter of geography and economy. How property valuations could be re-figured with any equity would demand monumental effort, infinite skill and, likely, massive infusions of new state aid to ensure adequate financing for regions left in the lurch.
School districts are where the students live and where the buildings are. They can’t be reshaped to the molding of politicians’ play-dough ‒ not without enormous consequence.
Bradford would play havoc with hundreds of school districts and the histories, economics, cultures and God knows what else rumbling over and about the school buildings and athletic conferences across Kansas.
There are better, safer ways to be a fool.