Many Kansas Counties Move to District Extension Offices
MANHATTAN, Kansas – Practical education and local Extension agents providing advice and direction on educational needs of its citizens: these are the hallmarks of the extension service and land-grant universities. The work of providing education services to Kansans is carried out by extension agents, who provide the people connection between Kansas State University and the citizens of a county.
“It is a very strong local government network,” said Jim Lindquist, assistant director of field operations for K-State Research and Extension. “Local people provide the educational needs of local citizens.”
Kansas law requires each county to provide funding to deliver extension programming.
Several Kansas counties cannot provide sufficient funding for local programs, and only have a single agent. “Many Kansas counties are not able to fund more than two agent positions,” said Lindquist. “In these counties, the agents are generalists, serving agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, community development, and 4-H youth development.”
The Kansas Legislature passed the Extension District Law in 1991. Since then, 40 of Kansas’ 105 counties have linked together into 14 extension districts to meet budget challenges and provide better educational programs and services to local residents.
The primary reasons for counties to form into district offices were for increased efficiencies and effectiveness. “Getting sufficient economies of scale means not having to duplicate services in every county. Examples include not needing a bookkeeper in every county, shifting responsibilities around, lowering insurance costs through one policy, and sharing equipment. With increased effectiveness, agents can specialize and offer more in-depth programming to residents across those counties that formed into a district,” Lindquist said.
Allen Warren is a county commissioner in Bourbon County. He was on the extension council when his county formed the Southwind Extension District #10 including Allen and Neosho counties in 2010. He said in addition to better quality programs, the district has more focused programs from each of the agents.
“We ended up with six specialists as opposed to two generalists working in our Extension office,” Warren said. We always felt our extension agents were good agents, they worked hard. Yet they were trying to answer every question that came at them. Having six specialists is a tremendous benefit for the Southwind District.”
Forming an Extension District
“It’s a fairly complex process when two or more counties come together,” said Lindquist. “It requires the approval of each county extension council, county commissioners, and the director of K-State Research and Extension. The Kansas Attorney General reviews all paperwork and makes the decision to approve the district.”
A District Board oversees the new districts, represented by four members from each county. The district laws require the governing body of four members to be elected by the general public on a general election ballot. This is held in odd years in the spring with other municipal elections, such as school districts and city commissions, according to Lindquist.
“This governing body is responsible to the public. The Extension District becomes a taxing authority to fund the needs of the district,” Lindquist said. “Historically, our Extension Districts have been good stewards and are responsible in their decision-making relating to tax authority. The numbers have remained consistent through the years.”
The oldest Extension district in the state is the Post Rock District, which was formed in 1994. Tom Claussen was a member of the Mitchell County Extension Council that joined forces with Lincoln County. He is a member of the Post Rock Board and was recently elected as a County Commissioner for Mitchell County. He said economics was the driving force in 1994, as the commissioners had not provided for necessary increases in funding for the Extension office.
By forming a district, “we were out from under the tax lid from the county commissioners. We didn’t spend any more money, but it was easier to levy and control our funds,” he said.
District Boards develop a budget to provide funding for extension. A proposed budget is presented at a public hearing to allow citizen input. The funding comes from property taxes.
Originally the mill levy for district offices was capped at 2.5 mills. But, in 1999, the Kansas Legislature removed the cap, leaving decisions to locally elected representatives. “History shows they are responsible and accountable to taxpayers,” Lindquist said. “Local governing bodies work hard to provide focused programs with agents who have the time to offer more in-depth, higher quality programs for citizens.”
In 2012, only one of extension’s 14 district offices had a mill levy over 2.5: The River Valley District’s mill levy was set at 2.663, down from 2.755 in 2011. The lowest mill levy is in Central Kansas District #3, with a mill levy at 1.179.
Claussen suggested local citizens control who is elected to the extension boards. “We are all friends and neighbors; if we spend money unwisely, we have to meet that taxpayer on the street,” he said. “We are all on the ballot, we can easily be replaced.”
The newly formed Post Rock district increased their levy for a short time back in the mid 1990s, while at the same time streamlining programs. “We were frugal but had the means to appropriate our funds with no shortfall,” Claussen said, adding that in recent years the mill levy has gone down.
“Our agents have been very good on holding the line on spending, often as if spending their grandmother’s last penny. They are stewards of the taxpayers money and offer a good program.”
In 2005, Jewell and Osborn counties joined the Post Rock district; this July Smith County will join the district.
Claussen said the benefits to the five counties will be seven specialized agents; and being their own taxing entity to control resources and expenses. Each agent is required to work a certain number of hours in each county, has a defined set of responsibilities which makes it easier for face-to-face visits and local support; but they also make good use of technology, e-mail, telephones and other resources.
“The university has given us all the help we’ve needed,” Claussen said. “If not for their guidance, we couldn’t have formed a district. That’s why it worked … the university supported us.”
Extension agents working in Districts agree that there have been benefits for them into forming districts.
“My ‘box’ has expanded,” said Pat Gerhardt, of the River Valley District. “We’ve been strongly encouraged to go outside the box and outside our comfort zones to seek new audiences. We have the support of the board to do that.”
David Hallauer in the Meadowlark District said, “The District has provided the opportunity and visibility for me as an agent to forge more specialized relationships. If you are seen as a viable educational source, and I think Districts help shore us up as such, doors open for you to work with other agencies. They know who you are, what you can do, and that you are more specialized in a field, so they use you as a resource.”
David Key, also in the Meadlowlark District agrees. “We’ve actually dedicated more resources, more people out there giving these programs. Our programming is snowballing, getting better.”
A unique educational system celebrating its 150th anniversary provided the framework for today’s extension service. President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862. The land-grant system’s original purpose was to provide a practical education to the working class. Each state was to designate a university as the land-grant college, with Kansas State University named a land-grant school in 1863.
In 1914, the Smith-Lever act formed the Extension Service as part of the nation’s land-grant institution. Today, K-State Research and Extension works to fulfill the original mission of disseminating information from the university to the people of the state to solve their problems and help with their needs through engagement and education.