TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas House and Senate leaders are asking that the state’s longtime top school finance official and his immediate staff be suspended while auditors determine if the Education Department has improperly allocated up to $405 million in school transportation costs to the state’s school districts.
Senate President Susan Wagle and House Speaker Ron Ryckman contend Dale Dennis, the deputy education commissioner, wrongly allocated the transportation funds during the last 45 years, citing a state audit that said the Education Department doesn’t have the authority to set minimum funding levels for transportation, The Wichita Eagle reported.
Dennis responded that he has calculated transportation payments to school districts the same way for decades, following directions he was given by legislative leaders. He noted no one has questioned his authority to do so in the past, despite numerous school finance-related lawsuits, his testimony before several legislative committees and audits of school financing.
The State Board of Education scheduled a special, closed meeting for Friday afternoon to discuss “non-elected personnel.”
The complaints about Dennis come as the Legislature is scrambling to find money to respond to a state Supreme Court ruling that Kansas has unconstitutionally underfunded its schools by as much as $650 million a year.
The demand to suspend Dennis prompted an immediate backlash Thursday, including an #ISupportDaleDennis hashtag on Twitter.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, a moderate Overland Park Republican, said Wagle and Ryckman appear to be trying to eliminate Dennis and his staff from school funding discussions so rank-and-file lawmakers can’t get independent information.
“My concern is that there seems to be an attempt to deny legislators access to the tools to make good decisions, which is data,” Clayton said. “We need that data now more than ever.”
Wagle and Ryckman explained their concerns in a letter to Jim Porter, chairman of the state Board of Education. They contend Dennis has admitted to the Legislative Post Audit that he knew state law did not authorize a minimum per-student funding level for transportation.
“Regardless, he knowingly directed KSDE to distribute these unauthorized payments for decades based on a conversation with Senator Charles Angell, a former member of Senate leadership who left legislative service in 1984.”
Angell, a Republican from Plains, served from 1973 to 1984 and was Senate vice president for the last four years of his tenure. He died in 2014.
The GOP leaders estimated the unauthorized spending at more than $300 million if it began in 1984 and $405 million if it started when the Legislature removed transportation minimums from the state education funding formula in 1973. Dennis said he doesn’t know how Wagle and Ryckman calculated that number.
The two said they didn’t question Dennis’ honesty but they have lost faith in him and his staff. They asked that Dennis and his immediate staff be placed on paid leave until an audit and an investigation — perhaps by the attorney general — is completed.
Dennis said legislative leaders told him in the early 1980s that they wanted school transportation funding done in a way that ensured urban districts wouldn’t get shortchanged.
“A member of the legislative staff drew it out for me, showed me how to do it, what to do, and said ‘That’s our definition of a best fit,’ and said ‘Do you understand it?’ And I said ‘Yes, sir.’ And it’s been in effect for 30-some years,” he said.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Fairway Republican, said legislators have repeatedly discussed the issue and Dennis acted in ways that legislators wanted — ensuring adequate funding for safe transportation in all districts.
“You can consider me, ‘Team Dale,'” she said.
Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com