- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 13, 2014

TOPKEA, Kan. (AP) - State Board of Education members struggled Tuesday with applications from the first two Kansas school districts seeking innovative status under a 2013 state law, and with the law’s implications for the board’s authority.

The board created a subcommittee Tuesday to meet with the Concordia and McPherson school districts to discuss their applications and resolve several questions. Among them were specifics about student testing, accrediting schools and the board’s role in overseeing the districts. State department staff recommended that the applications be denied even though they technically met the requirements.

“I feel very conflicted on this issue,” said board chairwoman Jana Shaver. “All of us want to encourage innovation in our schools.”

Innovative status exempts districts from certain state regulations in exchange for the freedom to try new ways to improve student achievement.

Gov. Sam Brownback and the leaders of the House and Senate Education committees chose McPherson and Concordia earlier this year from among eight applicants for the designation, but the state board still must approve them by June 18. The decisions could be appealed or modified applications resubmitted.

Some board members, however, said that they should with, not against the districts.

Ken Willard, a board member from Hutchinson, said the concern should be fostering innovation, not a turf battle between the state board and others. He suggested much of the board’s reluctance stemmed from the fact it was an idea legislators developed, not educators or the state board.

“I think we should take a liberal approach,” Willard said. “We ought to be looking for ways to approve them.”

Mark Ferguson, attorney for the state board, said the law gave the 10-member board little discretion in its role with the innovative districts. He suggested a conflict with the Kansas Constitution giving explicit authority to the board to supervise public schools.

“It’s really something, in my opinion, that usurps the constitutional duty of the board,” Ferguson said.

The board has sought advice from several sources, he said, including the attorney general to help interpret the law.

Beverly Mortimer, superintendent of Concordia schools, and Randy Watson of McPherson said they were optimistic the applications would be resolved.

“We don’t want to do anything that upsets the State Board of Education. Maybe we haven’t made that clear,” Watson said.

Board member Deena Horst, of Salina, cautioned that by denying the applications the board would discourage other districts from seeking the innovative status and send the wrong message to legislators about the willingness to work together on education policy.

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