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Small schools banding together

1/24/2014

By JUDY SHERARD

By JUDY SHERARD

jsherard@dailynews.net

PALCO -- Keeping the school district's doors open is personal for Palco USD 269 Board of Education President Tom Benoit.

Benoit has served on the board off and on for more than 20 years.

"Our biggest deal is to keep the quality of life for rural Kansas going -- if we can keep our schools open," Benoit said. "I'm not saying there's not a good quality of life in Wichita or Kansas City, but we have a different type of quality of life out here, and we want to promote that and keep it going."

Local schools are a big part of that quality of life, and a number of area districts belong to Schools for Quality Education, an organization whose main purpose is to preserve small schools, said Larry Lysell, USD 269 superintendent and pre-K to grade 5 principal.

Lysell, in his first year at Palco, has been a superintendent for 20 years, and in education for 40 years.

Benoit is president elect of the SQE board, and Lysell was elected to serve as a regional representative on the board.

Benoit said he's ready "to do some testifying at the state level for financing, and keep our schools open and keep things moving for us."

About 100 Kansas school districts belong to SQE, and the term "small" is relative. Member schools' enrollment range from 80 students to more than 1,000 students, but the majority have 150 to 500 students, Lysell said.

The Palco district's enrollment is 145 pre-K to grade 12 students, an increase of nine students from last year.

"If people will stay with us, we can have a district here for a long time," Lysell said.

USD 269 pays $325 a year to belong to the organization.

"It's just very reasonable," Lysell said.

Whatever their size, the school districts have some issues in common, with funding at or near the top of the list.

"We're constantly campaigning to get back to the former level" of funding, Benoit said. "If they (Legislature) would fund the formula the way it's built right now, it works real well, but the senators and representatives are having a lot of trouble wanting to finance it that way."

"That amount should be $4,433, and it's $3,838, so we feel it's considerably underfunded," Lysell said.

School funding isn't the organization's only issue. It also takes a stand on consolidation.

"We want to keep consolidation in the hands of the people that it affects," Benoit said.

Rather than have students ride the bus to larger schools, "we want to give them all the opportunities out here that the larger school districts away from us have," he said.

To get their united voice heard, SQE has two part time lobbyists to represent its interests in Topeka.

The lobbyists take advice from the SQE board. Larger members benefit as well as small schools, Benoit said.

"I think it's worked real well. It's money well spent," he said.

The organization also has a program that allows a group of students to go to Topeka during the legislative session and talk to their legislators.

"These legislators really like talking to kids," Benoit said. "These kids are smart. They really know what's going on out here."

"I don't have kids in school any more, but I got grandkids coming," Benoit said.

Since his children tell him they'd like to move back some day, "I want to see my grandkids go to school here."