Mediator requested to continue land transfer discussions

While Wetmore Academic Center shut its doors at the end of the 2022-23 school year, land transfer discussions have continued amongst four local school boards. At the beginning of the land transfer discussions, the multiple boards were corresponding amongst themselves mainly via email. However, at the beginning of August, those discussions turned into discussions among attorneys representing both sides.

Now, those conversations have stalled as well, and the land transfer dispute between Prairie Hills USD No. 113 and three other surrounding districts — Jackson Heights USD No. 335, Nemaha Central USD No. 115 and Vermillion USD No. 380 — will now involve a mediator.

According to a Wednesday, Aug. 30, press release — which is printed below — sent out by Jackson Heights Superintendent Jim Howard, the three schools — USD 335, USD 115 and USD 380 — “jointly petitioned the Kansas State Board of Education to initiate a formal mediation process and appoint a mediator as the next step in an ongoing dispute over school district boundaries.”

The request was submitted to the Kansas State Board of Education by Kriegshauser Ney Law Group on behalf of USD 115, USD 335 and USD 380.

According to Prairie Hills Superintendent Todd Evans, the Prairie Hills district learned about the mediation petition just 15 minutes prior to the release being sent to The Sabetha Herald.

In response to learning about the initiation of a mediator, Evans sent out a release, also printed below, to Prairie Hills patrons saying USD 115, 335 and 380 dismissed the “opportunity” to continue the conversations at the local level.

“I am deeply disappointed that three neighboring school districts rejected an opportunity to discuss differences school district to school district and superintendent to superintendent but have instead chosen to involve outsiders in a traditionally local matter – educating children,” Evans said.

Previous Discussions

Following the board’s decision to close Wetmore Academic Center in February, the topic of possibly transferring land to neighboring districts became a hot topic. After one in-person discussion about boundary lines with the Jackson Heights district in April, the other two districts joined in the land transfer discussions.

On June 12, Prairie Hills sent three letters along with an individual land transfer proposal to each of the districts including USD 115, USD 380 and USD 335. At that time, Prairie Hills requested a response by July 17, which was approximately four weeks later. Then, those three districts joined together to develop a counter-proposal with new district lines drawn, and sent their proposal to Prairie Hills on July 17. The three districts requested Prairie Hills respond by Aug. 1, which would have only given Prairie Hills two weeks to respond.

This is when the discussions among attorneys began.

In the press release sent out by Prairie Hills, Evans elaborated that each of the three districts were given a written proposal which explained the reasoning for the suggested land transfer.

“The USD 113 board is sensitive to the request that residents have representation in the school district in which their children attend school,” Evans said in the press release. “Our proposal to each of the districts focused on this goal. However, none of the districts were willing to discuss, school district to school district, reasonings for their demands.”

In the press release sent out by Howard, USD 115 Superintendent Tavis Desormiers said they initiated “good-faith negotiations” but the parties were not “any closer to an agreement.”

“In April, we initiated good-faith negotiations with USD 113 to discuss the transfer of land to USD 115, USD 335 and USD 380, respectively,” USD 115 Superintendent Desormiers said. “Together, we have thoughtfully presented a uniform proposal for new boundary lines that accurately reflects the educational needs of the students and preferences of the landowners. Unfortunately, those interactions haven’t brought us any closer to an agreement with USD 113 and we are hopeful that formal mediation will produce an outcome all four involved districts can accept.”

Driving Issues for land transfers

Jackson Heights USD No. 335

According to Howard’s press release, “of the roughly 125 students who attended that school [Wetmore Academic Center], the majority have chosen to attend public school in adjoining districts while others have left the public school system altogether. USD 335, in particular, is experiencing extraordinary enrollment growth as a direct result of the school closure. At the start of the 2023-2024 school year, USD 335 welcomed more than 100 new students who formerly attended school in Wetmore.”

Due to the influx of students, Howard said Jackson Heights has “gladly accepted the responsibility of educating these students,” however, the school district now has increased costs for educating these students, who do not live within their school district.

“We have added bus routes, hired new drivers and teachers, and anticipate substantial increases in a number of other costs, including fuel, food service, and educational materials,” Howard said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t received any of the base state aid to educate those students this year and we don’t currently have the property tax base to support that increase long term.”

Therefore, transferring the land on which the influx of students reside, would result in the Jackson Heights school district receiving an increase in state funds — base state aid per student — to educate those students.

While Jackson Heights has had a significant increase in students for the current school year, it was not due to Prairie Hills having a lack of resources to educate former students of Wetmore Academic Center. However, in the release sent by Prairie Hills it stated, “At the time of closure, USD 113 made the commitment to educate all students who live in the geographical area compromising USD 113. This includes the Wetmore area. USD 113 has adequate classroom space, sufficient staff and the buses and drivers to bring each student to a USD 113 school.”

Nemaha Central USD. No. 115

In 2010, the Sabetha-Wetmore USD No. 441 district consolidated with Axtell-Bern-Summerfield USD No. 488 as a cost saving measure. This developed Prairie Hills USD No. 113. When the Bern schools closed in 2012 and the Summerfield schools closed in 2014, this left Axtell, Sabetha and Wetmore as one district.

These closures and consolidations created a lot of land crossovers with Nemaha Central schools. Thus, resulting in Nemaha Central having a vested interest in trading territory with Prairie Hills.

Vermillion USD No. 380

Following the closure of Wetmore schools, some of the former Wetmore students chose to attend Vermillion schools. The USD 113 board offered to transfer land to Vermillion schools in order to allow for constituents to have representation on the board of education where their children attend school.

Evans also said that based on his information and based upon the quantity of land requested, USD 115 is requesting 11.84 percent of Prairie Hills district’s valuation, USD 335 is requesting 11.67 percent and USD 380 is requesting 3.2 percent. The total request of valuation in their proposal(s) is 26.73 percent of USD 113’s valuation.

Transferring Land

According to Kansas State Law, K.S.A. 72-532 provides that a transfer of land from one school district to another can be made only under the following conditions: 1) Upon the written agreement of any two local boards of education and approval by the State Board; or 2) Upon order of the State Board after a petition to transfer territory has been filed by a local board and a public hearing on the petition has been held by the State Board.

In order to qualify for petitioning for a territory transfer, a “material change in circumstances” had to occur such as the “recent closing of a school which makes it more practical for students to attend school in an adjoining district.”

According to Kansas State Statute, if an agreement cannot be reached between the parties, a request for a mediator can be submitted to the State Board. This is where the four districts currently are in the process. If mediation fails to result in an agreement between the districts to transfer the territory, a petition for transfer of territory may be submitted to the State Board pursuant to K.S.A. 72-532.

Petitions to transfer land are to be submitted to the Kansas State Department of Education by no later than Feb. 15 if the transfer is to become effective the following July 1.

Mediation Process

On Aug, 9, Scott Gordon, Legal Counsel for the Kansas State Board of Education, gave a presentation on land transfers to the Kansas State Board of Education. During that presentation, Gordon informed the state board of the following items that are required in the mediation process:

• When a request to appoint a mediator is received, the state board shall appoint a mediator and shall notify the school districts of the appointment of the mediator.

• Each session in the mediation process shall be scheduled in a timely manner and shall be held in a location that is convenient to the districts. Each district involved in a proposed transfer of territory shall be required to participate in at least one mediation session. The district requesting the transfer shall bear the cost of the mediation process.

The Herald reached out to Evans to ask multiple questions regarding the mediation that Prairie Hills will be involved in. Evans said there is still a lot of information that is being decided at this time including: who the mediator is or when a mediator will be assigned; when the mediation process will start; and if the Land Transfer Packet according to Kansas State Law has to be filled out prior to mediation.

The Prairie Hills USD No. 113 Board of Education met at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5, to discuss the possibility of selecting board members to serve on a land transfer committee. What, or if anything, transpired at this special meeting was not available at The Herald’s press time.

Jackson Heights Press Release

Below is the press release sent out by Jackson Heights Superintendent Jim Howard:

Today, three school districts jointly petitioned the Kansas State Board of Education to initiate a formal mediation process and appoint a mediator as the next step in an ongoing dispute over school district boundaries.

The request, submitted to the State Board by Kriegshauser Ney Law Group on behalf of USD 115, USD 335, and USD 380, comes after months of stalled negotiations with USD 113. In January, the USD 113 school board voted 5-2 to close the Wetmore Academic Center at the end of the 2022-2023 school year. Of the roughly 125 students who attended that school, the majority have chosen to attend public school in adjoining districts while others have left the public school system altogether.

USD 335, in particular, is experiencing extraordinary enrollment growth as a direct result of the school closure. At the start of the 2023-2024 school year, USD 335 welcomed more than 100 new students who formerly attended school in Wetmore.

“We have gladly accepted the responsibility of educating these students within our district,” said USD 335 Superintendent Jim Howard. “We have added bus routes, hired new drivers and teachers, and anticipate substantial increases in a number of other costs, including fuel, food service, and educational materials. Unfortunately, we haven’t received any of the base state aid to educate those students this year and we don’t currently have the property tax base to support that increase long term.”

Kansas law provides a process for school districts who have experienced a substantial and material change in circumstances to petition for transferring land from one school district to another when it is in the best educational interest of the affected school children. Like most other states, a significant portion of Kansas’ funding for schools comes from local property taxes.

“In April, we initiated good-faith negotiations with USD 113 to discuss the transfer of land to USD 115, USD 335, and USD 380, respectively,” said USD 115 Superintendent Tavis Desormiers. “Together, we have thoughtfully presented a uniform proposal for new boundary lines that accurately reflects the educational needs of the students and preferences of the landowners. Unfortunately, those interactions haven’t brought us any closer to an agreement with USD 113 and we are hopeful that formal mediation will produce an outcome all four involved districts can accept.”

Prairie Hills Press Release

Below is the press release sent out by Prairie Hills Superintendent Todd Evans:

Yesterday, three northeast Kansas School Districts filed a legal maneuver to diminish local control of the USD 113 Prairie Hills schools. USD 115, USD 335, and USD 380 dismissed an opportunity to continue ongoing conversations and resolve northeast Kansas education issues at the local level.

USD 113 Prairie Hills Superintendent Todd Evans said, “I am deeply disappointed that three neighboring school districts rejected an opportunity to discuss differences school district to school district and superintendent to superintendent but have instead chosen to involve outsiders in a traditionally local matter – educating children.”

Earlier this year after a long, systematic and painful process the local Prairie Hills school board voted 5-2 to close the Wetmore Academic Center. Evans said, “Closure was an emotional and painful process. Nobody wanted to close a school, but we involved the community, followed the law and made a fiscally responsible decision at the local level in the best interests of all of the Prairie Hills students.”

At the time of closure USD 113 made the commitment to educate all students who live in the geographical area compromising USD 113. This includes the Wetmore area. USD 113 has adequate classroom space, sufficient staff and the buses and drivers to bring each student to a USD 113 school.

USD 113 initiated the discussion of transfer of territory with a written proposal to each of the three school districts, accompanied by an explanation for suggested transfer. Evans said, “The USD 113 board is sensitive to the request that residents have representation in the school district in which their children attend school. Our proposal to each of the districts focused on this goal. However, none of the districts were willing to discuss, school district to school district, reasonings for their demands.”

Chad Tenpenny, Tenpenny Law LLC, serves as legal counsel to USD 113. Tenpenny said, “We welcome the opportunity to engage in a structured and professional mediation process where confidential conversations are happening directly between individual school districts without the involvement of interest groups who frankly sometimes appear more concerned about a statewide agenda than what is beneficial for local northeast Kansas students. Should mediation not produce a reasonable solution, we look forward to advocating on behalf of Prairie Hills taxpayers, parents and, most importantly, students before the Kansas State Board of Education.”

Tenpenny also said, “Unfortunately, due to many forces beyond our control, population is declining in rural America, which presents significant challenges. The USD 113 Board has acted prudently and courageously. Local rural people ought to be looking for ways to work together, make the best of their local situation and visit like neighbors instead of reaching out to government forces in Topeka for solutions on a local issue like educating children.”

Superintendent Evans said, “We have been diligent about following the law written by the Kansas Legislature. With that in mind, our board has an obligation to the taxpayers and patrons of USD 113 to provide financial oversight of our resources to meet the responsibility of educating USD 113 students. We will continue to strive to fulfill that obligation.”

Wetmore Closure History

In the fall of 2022, Prairie Hills USD No. 113 School Board members — Kent Saylor, Leslie Scoby, Jim Scoby, Kathy Lippert, Stan Keim and Phillip Buessing, and former board member Anissa Bloom — began discussions of possibly closing Wetmore Academic Center. After months of discussion and analyzing the schools financials, the board voted 5-2 in February 2023 to close the school at the end of the 2022-23 school year, with Buessing and Bloom opposed.

In March 2023, Bloom resigned from the board, which left her position open.

Heather Stewart95 Posts

Heather Stewart is one of two co-editors for The Sabetha Herald, where she has been on staff since 2015. Heather is a 2011 Kansas State University graduate with a degree in psychology. She lives in Sabetha with her husband.

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