Released: July 20, 2004
Kansas Counties Consider Extension ‘Districting’ Option
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Budget shortfalls, changing demographics and needs that cross county lines in parts of Kansas have prompted a resurgence in some counties’ interest to merge county Extension programs into Extension districts.
The idea of “districting” has gained momentum in the last couple of years and while just three such districts have formed since 1991, a number of other counties are considering the possibility.
Jim Lindquist, Northeast Area Kansas and Metropolitan County Director with Kansas State University Research and Extension, agreed to answer questions on the topic.
Q: Plenty of people know where their county Extension office is, and many take advantage of Extension programs, but what exactly is Extension?
A: The Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service (K-State Research and Extension or KSRE), working in concert with Extension councils throughout the state, delivers educational programs to Kansans. Our stated mission is that we are dedicated to a safe, sustainable, competitive food and fiber system and to strong, healthy communities, families and youth through integrated research, analysis and education. To facilitate that mission, K-State Research and Extension delivers educational programs and technical information aimed at improving leadership skills in the areas of communication, group dynamics, conflict resolution, issue analysis, and strategic planning that can enhance the economic viability and quality of life in the state’s communities.
Q: What is driving the resurgence in interest in forming Extension districts?
A: Three things. First, we all know there are changing demographics in Kansas, including declining population in some areas and increasing population in others. Changing demographics mean changing economic climates in communities. Some counties can afford only one agent, which leaves a huge burden on that agent to meet a multitude of programming needs for the county’s citizens.
Secondly, we’ve identified a need for relevant, more effective, high quality specialized programs, that often require personnel who have specific skills. Kansans have indicated a need for more in-depth subject matter knowledge from Extension agents. This isn’t always possible when a county agent has to divide time between several Extension program areas and thus cannot focus on the more in-depth issues. Those six or eight agents who are stretched thin in their own counties can be much more effective at focusing if they can specialize and collectively serve a broader population.
Third, funding for staffing is a problem. The average county Extension council’s budget is financed about 80 percent with county funds and 20 percent state and federal funds. But many counties, that have the authority to determine county Extension council funds have not been able to provide enough funds for salary and benefits of personnel and operational expenses. Districting will allow counties to combine resources and become more efficient.
Q: If a county’s Extension office becomes part of a district, does it mean the county office will close?
A: This is a decision that districts will make depending on changing demographic and programming needs. The districts that have formed to date have decided to maintain offices in each of the counties of the district. The public still has access to local Extension agents, although some of the responsibilities will change due to the agent’s area of specialization.
Q: What will it mean for agents? Won’t they be stretched even more thinly?
A: Right now, county agents are expected to cover a broad array of programming areas. For example, one agent might be expected to give programs on tree care, soil fertility, livestock nutrition and also help with 4-H programming in addition to myriad other program areas. That’s a lot for one person to juggle. With districting, the agents can be more specialized, and while they may have farther to travel (to several counties rather than just one), the horticulture agent would be able to focus on horticulture issues, for example, and the crops and soils agent could focus on agronomic issues.
It also means that agents can better utilize the time they spend planning and preparing programs because they will be delivering those programs to a larger audience across several counties. That makes the system more efficient.
Q: How will this benefit residents of the counties that form the district?
A: This is a situation where Kansans will get more bang for their buck. With agents able to focus more on a particular area, the quality of the programs and the depth of information delivered to residents in the district will improve. The agents may have somewhat less direct contact with some of the clientele, but the programs available will increase in quality and quantity with several agents coming into the county to deliver programs.
Q: What would agent staffing look like in a typical district Extension office? That would depend on needs set forth by the district council as well as funding. There would be a district director who would have some programming responsibilities as well as administrative duties. This allows the consolidation of administrative responsibilities to one person, freeing up other agents to devote more time to programming. In addition there may be a crops and soils agent; a livestock agent; a horticulture agent; a family and consumer science (FCS)/nutrition and food safety agent; a FCS/family and child development agent, a community/rural development agent and a 4-H youth development agent.
Q: What about the downside to districting? Surely there must be some.
A: Some people worry about local access to their agent. County Extension agents have been generalists that people can go to for information on many topics. In a district, agents will be more specialized and will be programming beyond the county where they are based, so access to a particular agent may change. But with current communication technology, many of those issues can be overcome and residents will have access to several agents who have specialized, more in-depth knowledge.
Q: Will county citizens lose local control of Extension programming?
A: Extension districts rely on strong local governance. Each county in an Extension district would be represented by four district governing body members that are elected by the residents of their county. Program development committees for the district will include people from every county involved in district programming.
Q: How are Extension districts funded?
A: Extension councils receive their local funds from a tax levy upon all taxable tangible property in the county. The district governing body will present a budget that consists of state and federal funds, and upon approval, local funds not to exceed the greater of 2.5 mills or the product of $75,000 multiplied by the number of counties in the Extension district.
Q: Is it possible for a county to either get into or out of an existing district?
A: Yes, there are procedures in place for either of those actions to occur.
Q: Do the counties in districts still have individual county fairs?
A: County fairs are run by fair boards or associations in most counties of Kansas. At this point, the existing Extension districts have decided that it is appropriate to support the local county fair.
Q: How many counties in Kansas have already formed districts?
A: Mitchell and Lincoln counties formed the Post Rock District in 1994 and Lane, Ness, and Rush counties formed the Walnut Creek District in 1997. The most recent is the Central Kansas district formed this year by Saline and Ottawa counties on July 1.
Q: What Kansas counties are considering “districting” right now?
A: Washington, Republic, Cloud and Clay counties are in the midst of the process. Commissioners in those counties passed resolutions in April to merge their Extension councils into a district beginning July 2005. There are many other groups of county Extension councils that are holding exploratory meetings.
Q: Do other states have Extension districts?
A: Yes, most of our surrounding states have gone to some form of multi-county staffing and programming.
For more information about forming Extension districts, interested persons can call their K-State Research and Extension area director or Lindquist at 785-532-3519.
K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.
Jim Lindquist is at 785-532-3519