Why is Dale Dennis the patron saint of local schools in
Kansas – and why are a handful of top Kansas legislators
out to persecute him?
Dennis, assistant commissioner of education, is known
for his infinite grasp of school finance and budgeting.
For decades, he has gladly shared his understanding and
experience with legislators, lobbyists, educators, school
administrators and reporters, among others. Through 52
years at the Department of Education, Dennis has directed
a massive accumulation of fact, history and statistical data,
information at the footing of nearly every school funding
measure proposed (or enacted) since the late 1960s.
Dennis has been, among other things, an architect of
the School District Equalization Act (1973) and the state
School Finance Act (1992); each one in its time was held
to be a national model for funding local public education.
In Topeka, the House and Senate Education Committees
cannot function coherently without information from
Dennis or his department. The House Appropriations
and Senate Ways and Means Committees cannot hope to
disburse funds reasonably without reports and analyses
from Dennis. The tax committees of both chambers have
suffered palsies of indecision without the backing of data,
in some form, from Dennis. All the while, the man is as
devoted and energetic at 80 as he was at 60, or 30. Over
the years the picture of Dennis and legislators is that of
professor to students, a kindly father figure, patient, wise,
ever tolerant, devoted to imparting knowledge, always
without superiority. Mostly Dennis waits to be asked. He is
deferential, never airy or patronizing.
Nonetheless, a man such as Dennis – that is, one with
brains – can be a threat to the venal or capricious legislator.
A civil servant with keen recollection and intellect, an
ability to acquire and store and retrieve immutable fact,
is a holy terror to opportunists who would distort truth or
manufacture falsehood to suit their own ends.
In a drama laced with exaggeration, Senate President
Susan Wagle, of Wichita, and her majority leader, Jim
Denning, Overland Park, suddenly have accused Dennis
of malfeasance, of “misappropriating” millions of dollars
in transportation aid to certain school districts over the
A recent state audit raised questions about the interpretation
of fine print in school finance law with roots to more
than 30 years ago. It involves an old bugaboo called “line
of best fit,” a way to average the transportation needs
among dense urban districts, establishing a mathematical
floor for minimum state aid as directed by legislators.
Dennis has explained this many times to various committees,
legislators, school officials, even patrons. Over
and over it was assumed and approved as the best way to
interpret original intent in law, in much the same way that,
long ago, an attorney general’s opinion carried significant
influence, but never the force of law.
At times over the years, as the legislature deliberated the
complexities of school finance, a course was ultimately
charted and Dennis dutifully followed directive.
This should end the dispute. It won’t, because the real
trouble is not about transportation aid, but the furtive
attempts of a few legislators to save their own hides. For
years after Gov. Sam Brownback’s election in 2010, his
fringe-right Republicans, led by Wagle and House Speaker
Ron Ryckman of Olathe, helped the governor to purge the
legislature of dissenters in their own party. They then led
efforts to abolish the state income tax, dismantle much of
the government, sack state agencies and degrade public
education and all associated with it, including students;
in the process they nearly bankrupted the state treasury.
After the 2016 election sent new progressives to Topeka, a
coalition of Republicans and Democrats managed to begin
a recovery that will take at least a decade.
Brownback’s diminished and fading commissars – Wagle,
Ryckman and others – sought to turn their coats, refashion
their own image, rewrite or delete their recent sordid
adventures. They hope with desperation that memories are
short and that an ugly history will not rise up to haunt their
revised legacy, or their chances for reelection. They fashioned
the distraction of impugning a stellar public servant,
a way to shift people’s regard, the way a jewel thief diverts
attention to substitute paste for the real thing.
On Friday, January 26, the State Board of Education,
for whom Dennis works, voted 9-1 to ignore calls for the
man’s suspension and to keep him where he is. The Board,
its composition and authority are a creature of the state
Constitution and quite able to resist the bleating of desperate
It is the measure of Dale Dennis that over the many
decades he has served Kansas education, not one public
figure until now has ever questioned his facts or his integrity
– and there have been countless opportunities: Debate
and deliberation of sweeping school finance and education
reforms in 1973 and 1992; an endless list of lawsuits, and
at least a dozen court rulings that turned on numbers from
Dennis’s department; the countless committee hearings that
reinforced old laws or led to new ones in education. There
were many issues and disputes, but Dennis’s character and
the reliability of his numbers were never among them.
School finance may need some fine tuning and a lot more
money. But the challenge to Dale Dennis’ extraordinary
record is the work of desperate politicians; it remains an
attempt to divert us from their chicanery, the damage they
have caused, their self-inflicted wounds – and their fear,
ultimately, of discovery.
Real change, or another myth?
Top legislators in Topeka have shown a sudden interest
in what they call “transparency,” letting the people in on
the action. The pronouncements seem a bit forced, driven
by a scathing series of articles last November in the Kansas
City Star; the stories detailed a litany of secrecy and suppression
at nearly every level of the legislative and executive
branches of state government in the Brownback era.
The trepidation that leeched through the House and Senate
has been suffocating.
Example: Brownback and his GOP leadership purged the
legislature of many party dissenters; next, long-established
rules of procedure were junked. The messy inconvenience
of deliberation and debate were consigned to a dust bin.
Legislation would no longer be born of fact, or from
the need for change or innovation. Legislation came on a
framework of fable, or elusive information (Welfare cheats
everywhere … tax cuts attract growth, create jobs…).
Legislation was incubated in myth (voter fraud … rampant
teacher incompetence…). Committee hearings, if there
were such a thing, were more likely to offer moonshine
and wool-gathering than any context of fact. A chairman or
governor who wanted a bill would get a bill, moonshine or
not. (Think block-grant funding for schools.)
The rules were tossed in a waste can. House-Senate
conference committees were once appointed to resolve
differences in legislation that had been passed by each
chamber. That practice was set aside. Conference committees
became the source of new legislation and no longer its
arbiter, without one minute of public hearing or debate.
Until 2013, a conference committee could not adopt
language or legislation that had not been approved, after
hearing and debate, by either the full House or Senate. In
2014, most dramatic policy reforms of school finance legislation
– corporate education tax credits, removing teacher
licensure, abolishing tenure, and more – had not been heard
in a committee or passed by the House or Senate.
It was all new – out of the blue, no debate, no deliberation,
no testimony, slapped on a conference committee
report with all the finesse of a mob hijacking. Like it or
Republicans duly voted the way they were told. No questions,
no thought, no trouble. Such are the mentalities of
power, of legislation built on arrogance and intimidation.
How sad for dear Ad Astra that we no longer aspired to
the stars. We had submitted to a void, to a government with
no rules, no deliberation, no taxation, a government on that
glide path to zero, to less than nothing at all.
This may be the year to return the legislature to full
deliberation and debate. Then again, “transparency” might
be one of those false hopes, an election-year myth.
‒ JOHN MARSHALL