SB 428 reinforces school board members’ ability to conduct needs assessments

(The Sentinel) – Senate Bill 428 (SB 428), currently in front of the Kansas Senate Committee on Education, would force district administrations to allow school board members to be part of the…

(The Sentinel) – Senate Bill 428 (SB 428), currently in front of the Kansas Senate Committee on Education, would force district administrations to allow school board members to be part of the annual “needs assessment” required by state law.

Kansas law currently requires that: “Each year the board of education of a school district shall conduct an assessment of the educational needs of each attendance center in the district. Information obtained from such needs assessment shall be used by the board when preparing the budget of the school district.”

However, multiple investigations by The Sentinel and its parent company, Kansas Policy Institute, have discovered that districts across the state continually ignore that law.

SB 428 would amend the law to require that “Such assessment shall include input from board members, teachers employed by the school district, school site councils and attendance center administrators. The complete assessment shall be published on the school district’s website.”

District administration often cuts school board members out of assessment

In oral testimony, the CEO of the Kansas Policy Institute, Dave Trabert, noted that in one case at a training session by the Kansas School Board Resource Center, also owned by KPI, a board member told KSBRC Executive Director Ward Cassidy they were not even aware the law existed.

Trabert said the board member asked Cassidy to join him at a needs assessment meeting at an elementary school.  During the meeting with teachers and the principal, they heard from teachers who said they were not sure how to properly teach reading.  Only one teacher had been trained in the science of reading.

“The principal had no idea,” he said. “Now they have a plan in place because they did do the building needs assessment.”

In written testimony, Trabert noted that KPI has compiled evidence that most school districts have not complied with the law over the last three years.

“A 2021 investigation of 25 districts found no evidence that the school needs assessment process took place, and some officials didn’t seem aware of the legal requirement,” Trabert wrote. “The Kansas Association of School Boards told the Senate Education Committee that districts complied with the law, but no records existed because education officials didn’t believe the law required them to document their work.”

The Legislature, however, didn’t buy that excuse and amended the law to require school boards to answer three questions for each school in the district and publish the results on the district website.  The questions are (1) what are the barriers preventing students from being proficient in reading and math in each school, (2) what budgetary changes are required to overcome the barriers, and (3) how long will it take to get all students to be proficient with the budgetary changes in place.

Yet a subsequent examination of 27 districts found none complied with the law in 2022. 

  • A further investigation in 2023 with open records requests to 25 more school districts found: Thirteen districts – Shawnee Mission, Topeka, Salina, Hays, Colby, Hutchinson, Leavenworth, Independence, Goddard, Derby, McPherson, Auburn-Washburn, and Eudora – claim that the school board was involved, maintaining that spending a few minutes reviewing staff prepared reports at a board meeting constitutes compliance.  But that is not “conducting” meetings.  At the very least, board members should actively participate in discussions with teachers and principals so they hear concerns directly rather than being filtered through district management.  The law requires school boards to review and sign off on the report for each school, but that is separate from the requirement to “conduct” meetings. 
  • Ten districts – Wichita, Kansas City, Blue Valley, Dodge City, Liberal, Pittsburg, Geary County, Lansing, Manhattan, and Newton – openly admitted that school board members did not attend needs assessment meetings. 
  • The other two – Maize and Louisburg – claimed that board members were included, but their documentation did not stand up to scrutiny. 

Education establishment opposes SB 428, school board members testify in support

Predictably, the education establishment testified in opposition to school board members, teachers, and other staff having input to the building needs assessment and requiring districts to give board members a report showing how many students are proficient in the district.

Jerry Henn, the assistant executive director of the Kansas School Superintendents’ Association, dismissed SB 428, effectively blaming school boards themselves for not being involved.

“USA-Kansas and KSSA stand in opposition to SB 428 as currently written. Mainly, many of the items that are brought up in this bill are local control,” he wrote. “Local boards are very capable of making the decisions necessary in this bill.  Local boards have the opportunity to ask for any data should they want it. 

“The needs assessment input is a local decision.  Should the board want input they already have this opportunity. Should the board want teacher input, they can ask for it. Should the board want site council input, they can ask for it.”

Assistant Executive Director of Advocacy for the Kansas Association of School Boards Leah Fliter also objected to SB 428 on the basis of local control.

However, state law does not permit district administrators to raise ‘local control’ as a basis to ignore laws they don’t like, and neither KASB nor KSSA denied that superintendents prevent school board members from conducting needs assessments.

Retired administrator Dr. Janet Neufeld and several current and former school board members provided oral or written testimony in support of SB 428: Amy Cawvey and Carla Wiegers of USD 469 Lansing, Vanessa Reid of USD 453 Leavenworth, and former USD 265 Goddard board member Bob Merritt.  Each board member confirmed that their districts were not following the building needs assessment law.

The building needs assessment law aims to improve student achievement, which was declining before the pandemic and has since worsened.  The 2023 state assessment results show that a third of Kansas students are below grade level in reading and math, and only about one-third are proficient.

Trabert concluded his testimony on SB 428 by asserting that student achievement won’t change if district administrators prevent school board members from fulfilling their legal obligation to conduct the building needs assessments.