The chief school finance official in Kansas — under fire from top Republican lawmakers, backed by scores of people in state education circles — on Friday avoided a suspension.
Dale Dennis, the state’s deputy education commissioner and a walking encyclopedia of Kansas school finance policy, came under attack over an audit that showed some school districts had long been getting money for buses beyond what lawmakers authorized.
Yet on Friday — with four former governors, nearly half the legislature and various education factions springing to Dennis’ defense — the Kansas education commissioner said he wouldn’t suspend the employee.
“I have full confidence in Dale Dennis and his performance of duties,” said Randy Watson, the man who made the call after seeking guidance from the State Board of Education. “He will remain fully employed and in his duties going forward.”
The board voted 9-1 to support Dennis, who’s worked at the agency for a half-century, in front of a room packed with supporters from across the state.
“You’re here because you love Dale,” said board member Jim McNiece. “Putting emotion aside and just looking at the facts that I see in front of me and that I’ve heard about this case, he did the right thing.”
The short-lived firestorm erupted this week, following a legislative audit filed last month. The audit said the education department paid out $45 million in extra transportation money over the past five years and that the practice stretched back decades.
Dennis has said he followed guidance from lawmakers back then and has openly and repeatedly briefed lawmakers on the calculation.
Lawmakers and superintendents who support Dennis, and at least one state board member, confirmed Friday that they had known about the situation and Dennis had not hidden it over the years.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Senate President Susan Wagle penned a letter on Wednesday to the state board calling for Dennis to get suspended without pay. That letter leaked to reporters, and the Republican leaders’ move was interpreted by various forces in the Capitol as political maneuvering in the ongoing fight over how much state money to spend on schools.
Some educators contended Dennis had been caught up in a partisan vendetta. Many took to Twitter with the hashtag #ISupportDaleDennis.
Nearly half the state’s lawmakers signed a bipartisan letter backing Dennis.
“He knows his facts and he is correct,” said Republican Rep. Mary Martha Good, one of the lawmakers gathering signatures. “So why are we pointing our fingers at Dale Dennis?”
In their letter, Ryckman and Wagle said the extra transportation money may have totaled hundreds of millions of dollars over the decades. They want an independent audit of the education department’s practices and have said the agency does not, based on a conversation with Watson, double-check that its calculations of aid match state law.
“We have lost faith in the accuracy of the work performed by Dale Dennis,” they wrote, “and any other KSDE staff who knowingly allocated K-12 funds in violation of state law.”
That view drew support from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who characterized the Dennis flap as evidence of crooked state government.
“The culture of corruption runs deep in Topeka,” the Republican candidate for governor tweeted. “Unelected bureaucrats like Dale Dennis can admit to violating the law and spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars without authorization. No man should be above the law. No system should be above the law.”
After the Ryckman-Wagle letter prompted an outpouring of anger among lawmakers and educators, Ryckman on Friday emphasized his respect for Dennis.
“Dale has been a great advocate for public education for many years,” Ryckman said. “This was not intended to be about him, it was intended to be about protecting the integrity of our laws.”
He said the letter should never have been made public.
Dennis supporters view him as a paragon of public service. School administrators and lawmakers say he seems endlessly willing to take their calls and answer their questions about the intricacies of school funding.
Superintendent Steve Karlin drove five hours from Garden City Friday morning for the vote on Dennis’ fate. He lamented that lawmakers weren’t working instead to meet a looming court deadline to increase money to schools.
“Things ought to be focused," he said, "on solving the big issue: funding education for Kansas children.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.