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A Look At The Decades-Old Kansas School Consolidation Controversy

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Shawnee Mission North
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It seems Kansas always manages to resurrect an education controversy from its past.

School finance is always a battle, but another old issue that many thought was settled — district consolidation — is back.

The House Education Committee Wednesday will debate a plan that would cut the number of school districts in Kansas in half — from 286 to 132.

This is just the latest ruckus kicked up in Kansas over school district consolidation. It all started in 1963, when Johnson County would prove to be the most militant anti-consolidation community in the state.

“They liked the intimacy of their local schools," says University of Kansas education professor John Rury who has written extensively on Johnson County schools. "You hear stories of board meetings being held in living room and being able to speak to their representatives and they were afraid of losing that.”

If you think 286 school districts in Kansas is a lot it's nothing compared to 60 years ago. In the late 1950s there were almost 2,800 districts in the state. Many districts consisted of only one school. The Legislature saw the inherent inefficiency with so many districts and passed a bill that required unification. There was opposition to consolidation across the state but by 1965 the number of districts had been reduced to 284.

Then, as now, money talked. “What the carrot was at the time from the Legislature was to provide more state money. So the logic of that ultimately prevails,” Rury says.

But the well-heeled and growing communities of northeast Johnson County were doing just fine and didn't need more state money. The old J.C. Nichols developments of Mission Hills, Fairway and Prairie Village were the most adamant and vigorously opposed consolidation “expressing a preference for local control and an aura of exclusiveness that many strived to maintain,” Rury writes.

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Credit Newsweek Archives
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The Oct. 21, 1957 edition of Newsweek declares Shawnee Mission High School one of the 38 best in America. Note that Southwest High School in Kansas City and Topeka High also made the list.

What was confusing to many was why these elementary schools wouldn't want to join forces with Shawnee Mission High School (now Shawnee Mission North). Shawnee Mission enjoyed a national reputation and was declared one of the 38 best high schools in America by Newsweek Magazine in 1958.

Still, the desire for autonomy was strong, so the first consolidation plan was voted down in 1964 by a two-to-one margin.

"Local school leaders may have been prepared for a defeat at the polls, but they doubtless were surprised by the one sided tally against the unification proposal," wrote Rury in his paper published in History of Education Quarterly.

But northeast Johnson County couldn't hold out forever and after a lot of negotiation with local educators and lawmakers, the Kansas Legislature passed a bill in 1969 forcing unification that created the Shawnee Mission School District, USD 512.

Why does Shawnee Mission have the largest USD number in the state? The state decided to number the unified districts in the order they organized starting with 100. So the 512 designation is a reminder that Shawnee Mission fought consolidation the longest and was the last community in Kansas to unify.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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