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Kansas Board of Education rejects Nemaha Central’s bid to seize territory from Prairie Hills

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Kansas Board of Education rejects Nemaha Central’s bid to seize territory from Prairie Hills

Jun 12, 2024 | 9:51 am ET
By Tim Carpenter
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Kansas Board of Education weighs Nemaha Central’s bid to seize territory from Prairie Hills
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Scott Gordon, an attorney with the Kansas Department of Education, served as hearing officer in a dispute that led Nemaha Central school district to petition the Kansas State Board of Education for transfer of 80 square miles of school territory held by the Prairie Hills district. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The territory dispute between neighboring school districts in northeast Kansas came to a head Wednesday as a divided Kansas State Board of Education voted to reject the Nemaha Central district’s petition to wrest control of 80 square miles of land from the Prairie Hills district.

Student, family and community loyalties in Sabetha, Bern and Seneca contributed to years of conflict and prompted filing of a petition by Nemaha Central to unilaterally assume jurisdiction of land in the service zone of Prairie Hills. A series of school consolidations helped bring the issue to a boil, and culiminated with the 6-3 vote by the state Board of Education to deny the application for expansion by Nemaha Central.

“It has been an exceedingly fair and democratic process,” said Todd Evans, superintendent of Prairie Hills schools. “They evaluated the facts, studied the law, took public input, debated the issues in open session and have ultimately ruled in the best interests of Kansas children.”

The conflict produced hundreds of pages of information laying out implications of maintaining status quo and making the land transfer. Last year, there was a failed attempt at mediation. On Tuesday, the state board listened as hearing officer Scott Gordon outlined reasons for his recommendation to reject the petitition. His briefing on the issue was followed by oral presentations by attorneys for the opposing school districts.

Nemaha Central USD 115 targeted territory in and around Bern, which had its school closed a decade ago but remained within USD 113 Prairie Hills’ orbit.

The state board of Education had the option of accepting or rejecting the petition. In the alternative, the state board could have crafted a compromise boundary map.

Gordon, general counsel to the Kansas State Department of Education, told the state board that his review of available evidence led to a conclusion the unilateral maneuver by Nemaha Central couldn’t be justified under state laws or board regulations. He said a well-attended public hearing in Bern produced no claim Prairie Hills and Nemaha Central provided anything other than excellent educational opportunities for students.

“This was not an easy decision to come to,” Gordon said. “When I looked specificially at the guidelines you’ve provided and the law that’s been in place … for a decade or more, that’s how I came to those conclusions.” He discouraged the state board from trying to draft an alternative map. “Based on my experience and based on reviewing the past precedent, that is a bad idea. There’s a really good chance that you would come up with something that no one is happy with.”

Both districts enrolled more than 100 out-district students in the 2023-2024 school year, which meant parents of those students didn’t pay property taxes to the public school district where their children attended. Niether can those parents vote in local school board elections where their children chose to attend school. Much of state education funding must follow a student, but Nemaha Central has paid dearly to transport its nonresident students by bus. The land transfer would qualify Nemaha Central for supplemental state transporation funding.

Since 2021, enrollment has been growing at Nemaha Central and falling in Prairie Hills. Nonresident enrollment in both districts escalated 10% to 12% during that period, but three-fourths of students in the territory sought by Nemaha Central choose to attend Nemaha Central schools.

Because the state Board of Education rejected Nemaha Central’s petition, the district cannot bring a comparable boundary reform proposal to the state board for two years.

Gordon said 24 land transfer agreements between school districts were forwarded to the state board since 1987. All but one was approved. Of the other 23 negotiated proposals, four were withdrawn by petitioners. Among the remaining 19, the state board approved eight and rejected 11.

“To me,” Gordon said, “this information shows that the preferred means of the Kansas State Board of Eduction to handle transfers of territory has always been by agreement between two districts.”

 

‘We have better facts’

Josh Ney, an attorney representing the Nemaha Central district, asked the state Board of Education to toss out the hearing officer’s recommendation. He bristled at Gordon’s conclusion Nemaha Central should have proposed the land transfer years ago. He said the hearing officer’s view created a disincentive for districts dealing with enrollment declines or school closures to take a wait-and-see approach to consolidations or land transfers.

“We think we have better facts,” Ney said. “We think we have a more compelling argument. Ultimately, we’re looking for an equitable solution for the region.”

He said the state board shouldn’t reject the petition due to fear it could open a Pandora’s Box of petitions from school districts inspired to initiate land grabs to add students or snag land with higher potential for property tax collections.

If the state board was uncomfortable with unilateral land acquisition petitions, Ney suggested they draw a new map for Prairie Hills and Nemaha Central. He said that would be a better outcome, even if neither side could claim victory.

“Get out the red pin and draw your own map,” he said. “This is the time to resolve this dispute. Pick something that no one’s happy with, because when you get to the messy middle, at least there’s finality.”

Ney said Prairie Hills proposed a land swap during negotiations rather than concede to the land transfer proposed by Nemaha Valley, but Nemaha Valley rejected that approach. He said Prairie Hills’ offer was about acquiring land in Nemaha Valley’s territory with low student enrollment and high property-tax revenue potential.

“This has always been about the students for us and not about the money,” Ney said.

 

Emotion, passion at work

David Cooper, a Topeka attorney with experience representing school districts in Kansas, said the state board should be asking itself important questions about how often it wanted to deal with land-grab petitions.

“What precedent do you want to set?” he said. “Do you want to be spending your springs and summers doing what we’re doing right now? Considering these petitions and refereeing these disputes? If you approve this petition in any way, shape or form, this will not be the only one you get.”

Kansas State Department of Education statistics showed 7.3% of students in Kansas public schools lived outside their chosen district’s territory. A significant number of those students were likely enrolled in online courses, but Cooper argued authorizing a land seizure by Nemaha Central would open flood gates of all sorts of appeals for territory adjustments.

Cooper said during the 2023-2024 academic year, USD 115 Nemaha Central had 105 out-of-district students. USD 113 Prairie Hills had 123 nonresident students during that school year, and 83 of them were from western Brown County.

“So, if you’re going to approve this petition, should 113 come back next year and say, ‘We want the land were 83 students live? We want western Brown County becuase we’ve been educating those kids.’ The same arguments are being advanced before you today,” Coooper said.

He said the state board should consider land transfer proposals in terms of the effect on students, what influence the change had on other school districts, if there was a material change in circumstances driving the petition and whether the result equalized benefits and burdens among impacted communities. The state board’s members must rely on laws, rules and guidelines rather than emotion and passion to make the decision, he said.

“The petition should be denied because there has been no material change of circumstances. The proposed transfer does not improve public schools in Kansas. It doesn’t improve the interest of childen in either district,” he said.

Cooper said Prairie Hills was able to negotiate territory transfers with the Vermillion and Jackson Heights districts, but a deal with Nemaha Valley proved elusive. The state Board of Education approved those land arrangements in May, effective July 1.