This 240th anniversary of our nation’s independence seems an appropriate day to discuss the meaning of local control as envisioned by the founders. Cities, counties and local school boards seem to believe local control means that local government is in charge. But Abraham Lincoln said it best in his Gettysburg Address: ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Local control is about citizens, not local government.
Olathe school board member LeEtta Felter recently attempted to make a case that the founders intended that state governments should not interfere with local governments.[i] She did so in rejecting suggestions that Kansans in general and the Legislature in particular have any right to expect a school district to operate efficiently, as though ‘local control’ is a trump card that allows a school board to do whatever it desires with other people’s money.
We’ll review the specific efficiency issues shortly but first let’s examine the relevant sections of the U.S. and Kansas constitutions. The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly defines what is within the purview of the federal government but says all remaining powers are reserved for the states or the people. In other words, the U.S. Constitution does not grant any authority to cities, counties and school boards, but to the states and the people.
Now let’s look at the Kansas Constitution. Article 2, Section 21 Delegation of powers of local legislation and administration says, “The legislature may confer powers of local legislation and administration upon political subdivisions.” Simply put, the Kansas Constitution doesn’t confer any special authority on cities and counties; even their very existence must be provided by the Legislature. Article 6, Section 5 does establish local school boards but much of their authority to act comes from the Legislature: “When authorized by law, such boards may make and carry out agreements for cooperative operation and administration of educational programs under the general supervision of the state board of education, but such agreements shall be subject to limitation, change or termination by the legislature.” Much of what a local school board is authorized to do is granted by the Legislature, including the power to tax and charge fees.
Article 6, Section 6 says the Legislature must make suitable provision for finance of the state’s educational interests but it does not say that schools must be given extra money to operate inefficiently. The authority to appropriate is constitutionally vested solely in the Legislature and in the absence of prohibition on taking efficiency into account, the Legislature may do so. Accordingly, when the Legislature engages in educational matters or issues related to cities and counties, it is not eroding local control but exercising its constitutional authority. So in a way, those who say local government should be left to do as it wishes are inadvertently advocating against the Kansas Constitution.
Ms. Felter strenuously objected to these suggestions KPI offered to reduce costs and put the savings toward instruction and better teacher pay:
- Provide maintenance, transportation, food service, accounting, HR, IT, payroll, personnel, etc. through regional service centers.
- Require purchase of commodities, equipment, insurance, technology, curriculum, etc. from a statewide procurement system to give all districts the same price.
- Make eligibility for Bond & Interest Aid subject to review by an independent panel to ensure that citizens outside a district are not forced to pay for excess capacity, higher than normal construction costs, building smaller facilities that increase district operating and construction costs over more efficient, somewhat larger facilities, etc.
- Outsource functions to the private sector (with the better service, better price approach) to reduce operating and KPERS costs.
Ms. Felter believes these suggestions intrude upon the school board’s local control; she contends they should be able to spend more than necessary if they so choose and that citizens across Kansas should be taxed more or funds taken from other government services to accommodate their excess spending. In essence, she and many others who share her belief want a modern-day version of taxation without representation. It’s one thing to decide how wisely or foolishly to spend money collected from residents within a district, but only a fraction of school aid is raised within a local district.[ii]
Local control is increasingly being used as a convenient shield by special interests in contradiction of the U.S. and Kansas constitutions. The Kansas National Education Association (KNEA teacher union) espouses the virtues of local control – except when local control interferes with their interests. They oppose local school boards being able to hire teachers who don’t have a degree in education (professional chemists and mathematicians, for example, are less likely to join a union in a right-to-work state). KNEA opposed granting school boards local control over due process, preferring state-mandated procedures that made it more difficult for local school boards to discipline or dismiss employees, and they were outraged at the suggestion that teachers be allowed to vote on whether to retain a union.
Cities and counties also oppose citizens being able to vote on property tax increases. Taxpayer outrage over enormous tax increases prompted the Legislature to allow citizens to decide whether, with some exceptions, property taxes should increase by more than inflation. Local elected officials say citizens can vote them out of office if they think taxes are too high but the power of incumbency renders that option largely moot.
Government doesn’t have dominion over citizens in this country, and for the sake of our republic, let’s hope it stays that way.
[i] Ms. Felter’s statements occurred in an email exchange with the author, with copies to all Olathe school board members and a citizen who posed some school spending questions to Olathe school board president Joe Beveridge. Mr. Beveridge’s response (in which he copied the entire Olathe school board) was forwarded to KPI for verification; we responded with data from Olathe’s financial statements and personnel reports that contradicted several statements by Mr. Beveridge. His response (again copying all board members) requested cost saving suggestions from KPI, to which Ms. Felter strenuously objected and made her local control comments. By copying all board members in their replies, Mr. Beveridge and Ms. Felter may have violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) which prohibits ‘serial meetings.’
[ii] Only 26% of per-pupil aid is attributable to Local aid on average in Kansas; USD 233 Olathe gets 29% from Local aid. A pro rata portion of State and Federal aid can be attributed to district residents but the majority of aid still comes from residents outside a local district.