Pratt County Extension is considering joining with other counties to form an extension district.

A joining of County Extension offices into an Extension District is under consideration in Pratt County.

An Extension District has several advantages to the current Extension operations. It would allow Extension agents to better serve the programming needs in their county by allowing Extension agents to specialize in a specific area, said Pratt County ExtensionAgent Jodi Drake.

Jim Lindquist, K-State Research and Extension Southwest Regional Director, presented the history of Extension Districts and how they would operate to the Pratt County Commissioners at their April 10 meeting.

The ultimate goal of an Extension District is greater county agent effectiveness as the specialize and narrow their focus. The first Extension District was formed in 1995. Now, 48 of the 105 counties in the state are part of Extension Districts, Lindquist said.

Extension agents have to know something about a lot of things and that doesn't leave time for agents to specialize in one program area.

"Mark (Ploger ExtensionAgent) and I wear a lot of hats," Drake said.

Each Extension agent in a district would become a specialist in some area and would be available for each county in the district. While the agents would specialize in one area, they would continue to provide information over the same wide group of topics they handle now.

A county in the district may need a specialist from another county to come and do a program meaning travel time. But county agents already put in a lot of travel time, especially for 4-H, so that wouldn't be anything new.

Joining forces with other districts will create a financial base for the Extension district. Currently, the Extension board develops a budget and it's presented to the County Commissioners for an appropriation. With that funding, the Extension office hopes the Commissioners will be able to give the agents and office staff a raise but that doesn't always happen. The Commissioners aren't always able to do that for one reason or another.

A major reason an ExtensionDistrict is being considered is the decrease in funding from the state. Extension offices are funded through Kansas State University. The state has cut funding to education, including K-State, and they, in turn have cut funding to the ExtensionOffices.

Last year, the Pratt ExtensionOffice had to give some of their funding back to the state. The Extension offices are not getting the funding they need from the state and county.

"That's one of the reasons were looking at that option," Drake said.

From the Extension agents point of view, they are stretched pretty thin. An Extension district would allow the agents to do their jobs better and be more focused on the county.

"The nature of our jobs is evolving and I think we need to evolve with them," Drake said.

A challenge with specialization is finding people willing to work in a specialized area, Lindquist said.

An Extension district would combine two or more counties together to make one district. Right now, Pratt County Extension is in discussion with Barber and Stafford Counties about forming a district. The county commissioners in those counties seem to be in favor of it but more consideration has to be done before making a decision and that will take some time.

"It's too soon to tell," Drake said.

An Extension district would become a taxing entity within the county and be able to issue a mil levy. Exactly how much that mil levy might be is unknown. The amount of the mil levy would be based on the combined county assessments and that would be used to create a budget which would determine the mil levy.

There is no state limit on a maximum for the mil levy but the county commissioners could place a cap on the levy, Lindquist said.

However, the County Commissioners would have no control over the mil levy after the first year, Lindquist said.

If an Extension district is created, it is likely there would be a slight increase in the total county mil levy, Drake said.

County Commissioner David Ward said he was hesitant about a District because of the lack of control over the Extension District Board.

The County Commissioners have some concerns about the mil levy and the impact it would have on the tax payers. Any time there is change, its a struggle and this is no different. It is a bit of a struggle for the commissioners to wrap their brains around an ExtensionDistrict.

In an Extension District, each county would retain their current Extension agents in their county. The 4-H programs would continue as always and each county would continue to operate their own county fair.

An Extension district would be governed by a board of directors that would be elected on a county ballot. These Boards need to be good stewards with the mil levy, Lindquist said.

Currently, each county Extension office has a nine member executive board that oversees Extension operations. There are four Extension program areas, each with a six member committee: Agriculture and natural resources; family and consumer sciences; economic development; 4-H and youth. The executive draws nine members from these committees to make up the executive board. These program committees present program ideas to the Extension office. Extension agents meet with them a couple of times a year.

The Pratt County Extension Board has been very cautious about forming an Extension District. They have weighed the options carefully. They have not taken this move lightly, Drake said.

An Extension District Board of Directors would have four members from each county executive board. The other executive board members would be dropped but still serve on the program committees, Drake said.

The next step in this process is to continue discussions with Barber and Stafford Counties to determine if its beneficial to join with them. If they do decide to for an ExtensionDistrict, they would have to get approval from the county commissioners.

County Extension Board discussions will continue this summer but it has to be decided before July 1 to form a district this year. If a decision is made to create an Extension District, the Board would go before the County Commissioners that would have to approve the creation of a district, Lindquist said.

A resolution would be published in the newspaper and the public would have 60 days to file a protest. If five percent of the voters oppose the formation of a District, it would have to go to a special election. That has happened three times in the past. Twice the vote was in favor of the district and once was against.

Once the resolution is passed, an operational agreement is sent to the State Attorney General's office for final approval.

Besides Pratt County, six other counties are in serious discussion about Extension Districts. Counties have to find a similar county to make it work. For those that have joined, they have become more efficient and more effective. And it has created more opportunities for children, Lindquist said.