Sam Brownback is the latest Kansas governor to establish a schools efficiency task force. He may be the only one to have prompted a dueling task force from offended school board members.
The Kansas Association of School Boards formed its own efficiency committee, criticizing the governor’s for relying on people with business and accounting experience and not including an educator.
That changed on October 18, when Brownback appointed Iola School District Superintendent Brian Pekarek to the task force. The task force met first on November 9.
Only 15 of Kansas’s 286 school districts comply with a law requiring at least 65 percent of state money to fund classrooms or instruction. The statewide average is 54 percent.
“The people of Kansas deserve to have effective schools that operate as efficiently as possible,” said Ken Willard, chairman of the governor’s task force. “Efficiency does not necessarily mean lower cost. It simply means that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and conscientiously, and that Kansas students graduate prepared for success.”
Since 2000, student enrollment has remained steady, yet instructional spending increased 84 percent between 1999 and 2011, three times the rate of inflation, according to the Kansas Policy Institute (KPI). Half of all state taxes fund education.
Efficiency panels in Kansas have been formed roughly every three to five years at least since the 1990s. Since 2007 the state’s legislative audit office has offered voluntary reviews, but just seven districts have requested one.
Pekarek was one of only seven district leaders to request an audit in 2010, when he led Clifton-Clyde Unified School District. It revealed the district could save $230,000 annually by using partially filled classrooms and cutting low-enrollment departments.
“Efficiencies and school systems—like all systems everywhere—can be improved at times,” Pekarek said.
For example, numerous districts enrolling fewer than 4,000 students in a single county have separate payroll, computer, bus, and food services, according to KPI. Improving those would mean more money for instruction.
“Efficiency is not simply about spending less money,” said KPI President Dave Trabert. “[I]t’s about providing the same or better service at a lower cost.”
Prospects for Efficiency
The task force will make recommendations to legislators next year.
Willard said he expects a “positive working relationship” with the school boards’ committee.
“Their goals may not completely align with those of our task force,” he said, “but any divergence will be handled respectfully.”
Trabert said outsiders can bring a fresh, disinterested perspective to school spending.
“The governor’s office is trying to find ways to provide outside-the-classroom functions at a lower cost,” explained Trabert. “KASB is focused on justifying and perpetuating the current system.”
That system, he notes, cost $12,656 per pupil in 2011, yet only 56 percent of 11th graders test proficient in reading, and just 49 percent do so in math.
“Parents are becoming more aware that simply spending more money does nothing to improve student achievement,” Trabert said.
Image by Dmitry Marochko.