TOPEKA, Kan. — An 80-year-old Kansas official who’s been the state’s leading school funding guru for decades received an outpouring of support Friday that smothered an effort by the state’s top two Republican lawmakers to have him suspended over questions about how he and his staff have been allocating some funds.
The State Board of Education voted 9-1 to back Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis, after dozens of supporters, including four former governors, rallied to his defense. The vote followed closed sessions with Dennis and his attorneys to discuss a state audit that said a calculation used by Dennis and his staff for decades to allocate transportation funds among school districts was “not authorized” by state law.
The state audit, released in December, prompted Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. and Senate President Susan Wagle to push the Department of Education to suspend Dennis and his staff with pay while the issue was investigated further. The two Republicans sent a letter to the board’s chairman Wednesday saying they had “lost faith” in the accuracy of work by Dennis and his staff.
But dozens of other lawmakers, local school superintendents and local school board members packed the board’s meeting room to show their support for Dennis. He has worked for the department for 50 years, provides information and advice to local officials, and has been acknowledged for several decades as Kansas’ leading expert on the state’s school funding formulas.
The board’s declaration of support for Dennis means he won’t face disciplinary action from his direct boss, Education Commissioner Randy Watson, who is hired by the board.
“I have full confidence in Dale Dennis,” Watson said after the meeting. “He will remain fully employed and in his duties going forward.”
The former governors — Republicans Bill Graves and Mike Hayden and Democrats John Carlin and Kathleen Sebelius — also sent a letter to the board on Friday, urging a “vote of confidence” in him.
“Mr. Dennis is an essential asset for Kansas schools and ultimately our children,” the former governors said in their letter. “Reject the introduction of alternate facts into an already complicated debate over the future of our schools.”
The questions about transportation funds and Dennis come as legislators face a Kansas Supreme Court mandate to boost funding for public schools. Legislators in both parties expected to rely on Dennis and his staff for information, and some saw the request for his suspension as an attempt to limit the flow of information.
The audit said Dennis and his staff used a calculation that ensured all 286 school districts received some transportation funds, though such a policy hasn’t been a part of state law since 1973. Auditors surveyed 16 districts and found that over five years, they received $45 million more than state law required, including nearly $10 million last year.
Dennis did not attend the open portion of the board’s meeting and declined to comment afterward. He has said the calculation was based on instructions from lawmakers years ago and has been discussed in numerous meetings since — an explanation board members endorsed.
Ryckman, the state House speaker and an Olathe Republican, said during a meeting of GOP House members Friday that it’s common in business or government to suspend someone with pay while such financial issues are investigated.
Rep. John Barker, an Abilene Republican and chairman of the committee overseeing auditors’ work, added: “When you discover a discrepancy of this nature within government or any business, you know, you don’t sweep it under the rug.”
Wagle, the Senate president and a Wichita Republican, issued a statement after the board’s meeting suggesting it had sided “with bureaucrats who’ve spent millions of unauthorized dollars.”
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .