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Kansas Public School Governance: Reformers Need Not Apply

By   /   January 23, 2011  /   1 Comment

An expert on school policy seems to have summed up what’s going on around the country, including right here in Kansas. “Even if by some miracle a dissenter can slip onto the board, there are tricks that the status quo uses to neutralize that person.” *  –

Tim Blakenship liked using his math and science training to help out at the local high school. He also attended school board meetings and noticed that board members weren’t discussing large expenditures before voting their approval. What he saw motivated him to run for a seat on the USD232 De Soto Board of Education in 2007.

“The biggest thing I talked about during that campaign was the need to scrutinize administrative proposals and ask questions,” Blankenship said. “When I’d come to a board meeting and see that no questions were asked at all. They just voted to do it.”

Kansas Watchdog has heard similar concerns directly from other citizens and board members around the state and anecdotes reported second hand from others, but few board members have been willing to speak on the record about their concerns.

Emily Davis is an exception.

Davis covered her school district as a reporter for the local paper in 2007, but her skepticism didn’t start there. Her parents pulled her out USD261 Haysville in ninth grade to home school her. She went on to study education at Tabor College.

She also watched in 2001 as Haysville’s superintendent was convicted of felony misuse of public funds for putting personal expenses, including gambling trips to Las Vegas, on the district credit card. The corruption came to light not through board oversight, but through a high school senior’s request for district financial records.

Davis tried to get a seat on the board two years ago, when two BOE members resigned months before the election. “I didn’t think I had a prayer because they all knew I homeschooled my kids, which makes me an enemy right off the bat. I mostly did it because I wanted to be involved,” Davis said.

The board didn’t choose her to join their ranks so she ran in the next election and voters put her on the board. “I think I won by being brutally honest,” she said.

Kansas state law says voters elect seven board members. Vacancies between elections can be filled by remaining board members. These representatives of the people have control over district policies, hiring and firing of district personnel, spending by the district and the local option mill levy assessed on property.

The key to oversight is access to information and, according to Davis, Blankenship and several other local board members interviewed by Kansas Watchdog, access is occasionally discouraged or blocked by school administrators and complicit board members.

Davis said the prevalent attitude from majority board members is, “If you don’t join lockstep with us you’re not one of us, and we are not going to give you any information that you want.”

“We’re told that to question is unsupportive,” Davis said. “Our goal is mostly to get along and support our administration. Questioning is not supportive in their minds.”

Each month the Haysville BOE receives, and is asked to approve, a document listing payables, checks written for various district expenses. Davis asked Assistant Superintendent for Finance Perry McCabe for more information on about 50 items from September’s 102-page payables report. McCabe said the request would take too much staff time.

“All we’re given is the check number and the amount and a brief description that’s cut off because of the pdf format,” Davis told Kansas Watchdog. “I want to know how much is administration spending and on what. But it’s not broken down, so I’m guessing. We don’t know. There’s no way of knowing how anything is spent and when we ask for more details we’re treated like we have leprosy.”

Before the October BOE meeting USD262’s superintendent, John Burke, proposed a policy copied from the USD259 Wichita BOE manual that says all requests from board members for information must go through the superintendent and be limited to two hours of staff time unless the majority of the board approves more time for research.

Burke said the idea came from a meeting he attended with Commissioner of Education Diane DeBacker and Wichita Superintendent John Allison. “They said they had a policy that provided opportunities for research to be done and yet with some limitations in terms of staff time.”

Davis and two other board members objected to the policy and asked that it be put on the agenda for the November meeting but Burke pulled it from consideration before the meeting. “It seemed to create some controversy,” Burke told Kansas Watchdog. “It’s available and if the board feels it’s necessary at some point. Apparently it’s not something that the board is entirely interested in.”

Expense reporting

Davis said the lack of fiscal oversight by the board is particularly frustrating because of the district’s experience with a Superintendent Lynn Stevens’ misuse of a district credit card in 2001. Stevens pled no contest, was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to pay $44,600 in restitution. A check of 18th Judicial District Court records showed he was released from probation in 2003 and a collection agent assigned to collect the restitution money.

USD261 BOE President Susan Walston told Kansas Watchdog, “I think one of the things that came out of that, we had Allen, Gibbs & Houlik come in and do a big audit after that for the board and say that things like this happen, that we’re over reacting. It’s schools, its children. We’ve always passed all of our audits and everything. We’ve never had any problem show up there at all. And so, one of the things, kind of, that came out was that if somebody wants to do something wrong they’ll find a way.”

A May 2001 Legislative Post Audit report on the incident cited lax procedures and oversight by the BOE:

The former superintendent of the Haysville school district was able to misuse the District’s credit card because he wasn’t required to submit receipts, his purchases weren’t reviewed by someone with authority over him, and the school board didn’t review detailed enough information to really know what he was purchasing.

Mark Dick, executive vice president of Allen, Gibbs & Houlik, was scheduled to testify at Stevens’ trial before he pled guilty. He told Kansas Watchdog that audits typically done for schools are not designed to catch that type of misuse of funds. LPA auditors recommended that board members receive original credit card receipts.

Fallout from the case led to a new state law requiring more stringent recordkeeping and oversight of district credit cards and a USD261 board policy change: “The superintendent’s purchasing card report shall be included with the board meeting packet materials.”

When asked if the board still follows this policy, Walston said, “We get the copy, all the board members do.”

USD261 Community Relations Coordinator Liz Hames said in Jan. 17 email, “Each month each board member is given a paper copy of Dr. Burke’s purchasing card report.”

Davis received copies of recent bank statements for Burke’s district credit card in the mail Friday, Jan. 21, with the following explanation:

It has come to our attention that you all have not received copies of my purchasing card statement over the past few months.  We changed receptionists over the summer and had a very disjointed transition between people as one left in July and other did not start until August.  I have attached the relevant statements for your review.  The missing months I did not have any purchases.”

Barbara Walters was on the USD261 BOE when Stevens was fired. She said she was in the minority who wanted to see credit card receipts. “Well, then there would be the four people who would say, ‘We hired the guy to do a job, and he can’t do his job if we’re looking over his shoulder.’ There were four people who had that mantra continuously. For that reason we didn’t get what some of us would like to have had because the board did not support that.

Questionable bus use for lobbying

On March 16, during the 2010 spring break, 27 Campus High School students and five chaperones participated in a rally and lobbying effort at the Capitol asking the Legislature not to cut school funding. Burke arranged for use of a USD261 activity bus for the trip.

The BOE learned of the trip and use of the district bus when Burke spoke about it during his report at the March 22 board meeting.

Davis said she immediately questioned use of the bus. “I called him on it in the meeting and said, that’s not right, for a public school district that’s taxpayer funded to go up and lobby and to protest for something. I said what if these students had wanted to go up to a pro-life rally in Topeka? Would you have taken them on a school bus? Is it equal opportunity?”

Burke told Kansas Watchdog if a group of students wanted to participate in some other protest that would be fine too and the bus trip to Topeka did not require board approval. “Student trips are routinely approved at much lower levels and this was a student trip of student council members and debate and forensic students.”

Burke paid $219.93 for use of the bus. “I thought there might be some concern on the part of legislators that we were using school funds to send a group of students up to the Capitol, and I thought lets remove that from consideration. I’ll pay for it myself,” Burke said.

A USD261 invoice obtained by Kansas Watchdog shows Burke made the payment on April 13, weeks after Davis objected to use of the bus and after her letter to the editor on the subject ran in the local paper.

Reprimanded

Davis said that shortly after the letter appeared Walston verbally reprimanded her for speaking out about school issues. Walston said she told Davis to be careful about editorials, especially how they’re signed. “Sign it as an individual, not as a member of the board of education.”

Walt Chappell, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education, received a similar reprimand in a letter from KSBOE President Janet Waugh on Nov. 18, 2009, for appearing in a television interview in which he disagreed with the board majority. Fellow board member David Dennis also appeared on the same station the same day. Both were identified as members of the state BOE, but Dennis agreed with the board majority and Chappell did not.

Walters said she’s concerned about the push for unanimity on the board. “I think when people vote no they’re seen as trouble makers or not willing to go along or just not following the game plan as they should, that board members are only there to go along with everything presented.”

“A school board that votes yes unanimous every time is a dysfunctional board,” she said. “That’s not a popular thought among our board. Our board feels that we should simply agree and go on with whatever has been submitted.”

Davis and Haysville BOE member Greg Fenster said they’re also frustrated by efforts to limit their contact with district employees.

“When I first joined the board the president told me, any time you’re going to a school you need to tell the principal,” Fenster told Kansas Watchdog during a recent phone interview.

“I looked at her and I said, I’m not going to do that. Do they have something to be afraid of or some reason to be concerned? I could be going because my wife is a teacher or because my daughter is a student. I was kind of perturbed that they would order me or tell me that I need to tell them I’m coming. That was one of the first lessons they tried to drill into me in and it kind of set the tone.”

Davis said the board heard from high school teachers concerned about a new math curriculum.

“I emailed these teachers back and said, thank you for contacting me. I’d like to meet with you and go over examples in this math text that you’re concerned about. Before the email was 10 minutes old I got a call from the board president and was reprimanded again and was told absolutely it is inappropriate to talk to staff that it was a violation. I found out later that these teachers and a vice principal at the high school had been reprimanded as well for contacting the board because, supposedly, it had already gone through the chosen committee and they were outside the chain of command.”

Changing direction

Blankenship, on the USD232 De Soto BOE, said he’s experienced some of the same issues as Davis. “The last meeting we had with our old superintendent was a gigantic public meeting in a gymnasium because things were coming to a boil.” About 400 people, including many teachers, attended the meeting April 20, 2009. Many were critical of district administration.

Blankenship said concern over potential problems prompted him to ask to see credit card records. “The superintendent told me I would have to pay the open records act fee to get them.” Blankenship said he didn’t back down and the superintendent resigned four days after the public meeting.

Blankenship is now the board president and told Kansas Watchdog that unanimity isn’t pushed on the board. “But we all do know that everything needs to be above board. Because the board never asked questions things were starting to happen behind closed doors. That’s what happens if there’s no accountability.”

“We need to hold the administration accountable so that it’s all focused to getting everything that we can for the students and at the same time we’re not going to milk the taxpayers for every dime that they can possibly afford,” Blankenship said.

It took two election cycles to change the majority perspective on the board.

“We beat three incumbents out between those two elections and significantly changed the way the board views their job,” Blankenship said. “They’re in charge of actually spending the money, approving the expenditures and hiring the superintendent so the top-level administrators actually work for the board.”

Blankenship said public reaction has been good. “We have a new culture of continuous improvement. If you don’t ask questions and find ways to do things better, then you’re not improving. And how can you do that if you don’t challenge the status quo? That’s really what it amounts to.”

Walters said the BOE should represent the people. “The community of Haysville and the parents and residents who are paying taxes, they should be who the board represents. I think that gets skewed sometimes where people think public education is what the board represents. I don’t think that’s true.”

Davis said, “I think what the citizens want, more than anything, is for a board of education that is there to represent them.”

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*Introductory quote is from Jay P. Greene, chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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Related stories, videos

Debunking Myths in the School Funding Debate

A Look Inside the Kansas State Board of Education

Kansas Educators Question Reprimand and Free Speech

Walt Chappell Reprimand Letter

Lack of Data, Oversight Raises Questions on School Spending

Reprinting: Kansas Watchdog is a free wire service and we welcome reprinting and only ask for attribution and notification.  If you’d like to reprint this story we ask that you e-mail the author with the date the story will run and the outlet name.  To schedule an interview with the author please click here.

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During his 28-year journalism career Soutar worked for the Associated Press, the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and Knight Ridder Newspapers in Washington, D.C. From 1990 to 2008 he worked for the Wichita Eagle as a photo and graphics editor, producing special sections and writing stories on various subjects. He has received numerous international, national and regional journalism and design awards. Before his journalism career Soutar served in the U.S. Navy photographing and writing about events in the Western Pacific and Indian oceans.

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