A glorious legacy
By John Marshall
On September 8, Dale Dennis announced his retirement, effective September 30, after 53 years with the Kansas Department of Education. For decades, Dennis has been the state’s chief outfitter and guide for navigating the tricky landscapes of public school finance. His thorough grasp of the subject, his ability to convey complex formulas in simpler language are unmatched. His keen institutional memory has fortified education in Kansas for decades.
Dennis’s official title has been deputy commissioner and school finance administrator, but over much of Kansas he has become the patron saint of local education.
Among other things, Dennis is an architect of the School District Equalization Act (1973) and the state School Finance Act (1992); each in its time became a national model for funding local education. He has been a chief witness during numerous legal challenges to these laws, and he has helped the system to hold fast in spite of repeated and venomous assaults on education during the long Brownback years.
For decades he has gladly shared his understanding and experience with legislators, lobbyists, educators, school administrators, news reporters and, even among others, judges. All the while, Dennis has directed massive accumulations of fact, history and statistical data, information that has reinforced nearly every school finance measure proposed (or enacted) since the mid-1960s.
Last year, the Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas named Dennis the Kansan of the Year. The Kansas Association of School Business Officials gave him its distinguished award, then named that award the “Dale Dennis Distinguished Service Award.”
School finance in Kansas has a rugged legacy, and Dennis has long held firm to its basic principle – that the quality of education in a school district should not depend on the wealth of that district.
The state’s district and appellate courts have repeatedly summoned equitable and suitable spending for local schools; the Kansas Supreme Court has upheld this canon as law six times in nine years and a dozen times in the past 28 years.
For now, things are calm. The issue this year has not burned through election campaigns. After the Brownback era of slash and pillage (2011-2016), legislators – many of them new – adopted a plan two years ago to fulfill a Court directive and restart constitutional funding for local schools.
Roughly 75 percent of local school budgets in Kansas are from state aid, a $4 billion pool sustained with a uniform statewide school property tax; sales and income taxes also contribute. Aid for each district is allocated according to enrollments. There are extras for special circumstances – poverty, language barriers, low enrollment, capital projects, transportation needs and so forth.
The remaining 25 percent is decided through an additional (“supplemental”) local property tax.
This formula advances a state-local partnership. It has worked for 30 years because Dennis has helped so many people to understand it and to build on it.
In Topeka, the House and Senate Education Committees rarely can function coherently without information from Dennis or his department. The House Appropriations and Senate Ways and Means Committees could not 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 has been as devoted and energetic at age 83 as he was at 63, or 33.
Over the years the picture of Dennis and legislators has been that of professor to students, a kindly father figure, patient, tolerant, ever wise, devoted to imparting knowledge, always without superiority. He waits to be asked. He is humble and deferential, never airy or patronizing.
A couple of years ago the senate president and speaker of the house – a pair of venal Brownback commissars – floated a scheme to discredit Dennis, an exaggerated drama over the fine print in school transportation aid. The politicians’ crude hysterics backfired in the bright light of truth and history.
But for that outbreak of petty chicanery, not one public figure has ever questioned Dennis’s facts or his integrity – and there have been countless opportunities: Debate of sweeping reforms in 1973 and 1992; an endless parade of lawsuits, and the dozens of court rulings that turned on fact and accounting from Dennis’s department; countless committee hearings that reinforced old laws or led to new ones. There were many issues and disputes, but his character and the reliability of his information were never among them.
Dale Dennis is a Kansan of the Year, even the century. His legacy of service is immutable. Local education is far better now for his unwavering commitment to their purpose and promise.