June 21, 2024

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Prairie Hills / Sabetha USD 113 now in land transfer dispute with Nemaha Central

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Its long-running financial disagreements with school districts in Jackson Heights and Vermillion over its closure of the Wetmore School was settled over a year ago, but the Prairie Hills USD 113 (Sabetha) School District is now at similar loggerheads with Nemaha Central USD 115. This dispute has simmered even longer, back to the 2012 closure of the Bern School, which consolidated with USD 113 two years earlier.

The debate briefly played out in front of the Kansas State Board of Education May meeting, where Nemaha Central supporters and attorney Josh Ney urged the ruling body to accept their petition, which states:

Although USD 113 declined the land transfer requests in 2012 and 2013, the Bern area students/families “voted with their feet” and over 75% of the families from this area have been sending their children to USD 115 since fall of 2012.

Without the land transfer, Bern parents whose children are attending Nemaha Central are paying property tax to Prairie Hills / Sabetha, and Nemaha Central residents say they are having to pay extra. USD 115 has received no compensation from USD 113 for educating, transporting, and feeding the Bern students in the intervening dozen years.

Photo courtesy of USD 113

USD 115 Board President Amy Sudbeck recounts the history of the districts’ conflict:

“This issue has been present ever since 2010 when USD 488 Axtell, Bern, and Summerfield consolidated with the Sabetha, Wetmore school district.  Before the consolidation occurred, Bern had asked for assurances that if Sabetha were to vote to close the Bern school, that Bern could move their land to the district that the most kids chose to attend.  Sabetha offered those assurances to Bern and the schools all voted to consolidate.  At the time of the consolidation vote Sabetha had also promised that they would give Bern at least 5 years to remain open and work on enrollment numbers before deciding whether or not they would vote to close Bern.  They voted to close Bern in 2 years.

Photo courtesy of USD 115

“Right after the closure of the Bern school in 2012 the community went to the 113 school board and asked for them to fulfill their promise of moving the land to the 115 school district where the majority of former students chose to attend.  Despite previous promises and a stack of signed affidavits in front of them from over 80% of the land owners requesting to have their land transferred from 113 to 115, the school board told the community representatives that it was ‘too soon’ to move the land and emotions needed to settle down before any discussions of land transfer occurred.

“Over a decade later and even higher number of students enrolling at Nemaha Central from the Bern area, 113 has continued to refuse to faithfully take part in land transfer negotiations.”

Sudbeck says the two districts have different priorities:

“According to Sabetha this is about money.  Although a closer look at the money reveals that at best USD 113 (Sabetha) is collecting 2-300,000 dollars’ worth of funding from the proposed area for transfer. This equals approximately 1.8% of their 15,300,000 annual budget.

Nemaha Central Board President Amy Sudbeck addresses the Sabetha district's refusal to transfer land
Nemaha Central Board President Amy Sudbeck speaking to the State Board of Education

“For Nemaha Central this is about the students. For over a decade the Bern area has remained faithful to NC and NC has been faithful to Bern. The students and their families deserve to know that they will always have a place at NC and will not be subject to open enrollment laws that will place any new Bern students into a state lottery system.

“This is about the students’ families to finally be able to participate in school government and hold board positions to have a voice in the school they have chosen for over a decade. To be able to vote for or against bond issues. Sabetha was never going to make a move to do the right thing for Bern, that much is clear. So, Nemaha Central did.”

We asked the board president her view of why Sabetha could reach agreements with Jackson Heights and Vermillion over the former Wetmore students, but not with her district.

“It is unclear what is preventing Sabetha from coming to the table to negotiate in good faith with USD 115.  USD 113 was willing to negotiate in good faith with USD 380 and USD 335.  Why 113 refuses to do the same with USD 115 has never been answered.  USD 113  has continually asked USD 115 to ‘trade’ land with them, without offering any justification for the ‘trade.’ The land transfer USD 115 is asking for in the petition is the territory where our students reside and our students’ families have been asking for the land to be moved for over a decade.  113 has no such area in 115’s district and cannot offer sound reasoning for a ‘trade.’ They also requested no such ‘trade’ when negotiating with 380 and 335.”

USD 113 Prairie Hills / Sabetha responds

We reached out to USD 113 Superintendent Todd Evans for a response:

“We urge the State Board of Education to respect the democratic process and dismiss this petition. In 2010, Prairie Hills patrons, with strong voter turnout in the Bern area, overwhelmingly and immediately stepped in and embraced these communities educating children for over a decade. Now, Nemaha-Central is demanding outside interference from Topeka.

“USD 113 educates the same number of out of district students as Nemaha Central, and Kansas is entering the era of ‘open enrollment.’ If the State Board honors this petition, these expensive and time-consuming legal disputes may become commonplace. The Board will suddenly become a full-time referee potentially being asked to draw new district lines each time a few students change school districts. There could be a lot of statewide dominoes here. It could lead to a chaotic situation.

Photo of Superintendent Evans courtesy of USD 113

“It must be emphasized that we were able to negotiate and seek reasonable accommodations with USDs 380 and 335 regarding district land transfers. The Prairie Hills School Board made significant land concessions with both districts. However, Nemaha-Central’s demands are extreme and unworkable. The taxpayers in Kansas will pay more in equalization funds to support reduced 115 taxes, it is not a reasonable situation. We urge the State Board to follow the law, respect local control and dismiss this petition. It is time we all get back to our primary mission, educating students.”

Superintendent Evans added a statement from USD 113 legal counsel, Fisher Patterson attorney David Cooper:

“Capacity is also a major issue in this analysis for the Board, Prairie Hills has plenty of capacity for new students. Meanwhile, Nemaha-Central acknowledges it is ‘at capacity.’ They have not met the required material change of circumstances test. This petition would reject local control and drawing new boundaries that encourages students to attend school where there are capacity issues defies Kansas common sense.”

In her statement before the board, USD 115 Board President Sudbeck also criticized the performance of Hearing Officer Scott Gordon, currently the General Counsel for the Kansas Department of Education (KSDE):

“In an email, the hearing officer for this case, Mr. Scott Gordon, explained that USD 115 could come in front of the board today, but it would be a waste of our time because you would not even know what we were talking about.

“We’ve been advised by Mr. Gordon not to speak to the state board and the state board has been advised not to speak with us.

“Moreover, a motion to present oral argument was filed by counsel for 115. It was almost immediately returned and rejected by the hearing officer. Thus far, it’s not been found whether the filing was ever presented or considered by the state board itself. Scott Gordon made that call.

“From the public’s angle, they are very concerned this is an effort to silence them.”

There was also concern raised about the appointment of Gordon as hearing officer, and whether he may have appointed himself to the position.  The State Board is allowed to appoint a hearing officer, but no evidence has been provided to document his appointment.

We asked Gordon to respond to USD 115’s allegations of his conduct. He did not respond.

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