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'Everything's on the table' for school district cuts

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010, at 12:08 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 2, 2010, at 12:37 p.m.

Students will find larger classes, fewer teachers and fewer extracurricular activities next fall, based on budget cuts being considered by Kansas school districts.

A survey by the Kansas State Department of Education shows districts are considering cutting curriculum and services to the core as they face a $187 million cut in state aid next school year.

But this time, schools are also considering reductions that would alter the schedule on which the schools — and families — operate.

The decisions now affect jobs, as salary and benefits are about three-fourths of most districts' budgets.

"I've had more tearful meetings in the last two weeks than I've ever had in my entire career," said Andover superintendent Mark Evans, adding he has begun warning some employees they may not have a full-time position next school year. "I've never seen anything that looks like this."

Andover stated in the state survey that it would have to cut the equivalent of 60 full-time positions next school year if state aid drops as expected.

Wichita, the state's largest district, estimated it would have to cut 320 full-time positions.

Derby estimates it will have to cut 60 full-time positions and may eliminate elementary art and all-day kindergarten and go to a four-day school week.

"Everything's on the table, unfortunately — every single thing," said Craig Wilford, superintendent of Derby schools. "That's what makes this so difficult."

Education funding makes up more than half of the state's budget. Legislators also have tough decisions in balancing the budget with falling tax revenue. Tax revenue in February came in $71 million below expectations, and the state faces a more than $400 million shortfall when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Less classroom time

Wichita is asking parents and staff how important five-day weeks are, and some districts have already decided to shorten the school week or year.

Kansas schools are required to be in session at least 186 days a year, which is above the 180 required in most states, according to a national survey by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The shortened school week is getting more attention from schools because about a dozen Kansas districts have tried it to some degree of success, said Mark Tallman, assistant executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards.

"Typically, it's not a big money saver," he said.

Teachers work on annual contracts, and most districts don't reduce their salaries when reducing days, Tallman said.

More cost savings would come from paying teachers for fewer days, but that would have to be negotiated with and approved by the teachers unions, he said.

Districts on four-day weeks mostly save in cutting salaries of bus drivers and custodians, and lower transportation costs and utility bills.

"What people have generally found is a number of districts that tried that tend to be small districts," Tallman said. "As you get into a larger community, it's more about child care and supervision of kids."

Last year Wichita officials estimated the savings would be $1.25 million if teachers and school staff were paid one less day. They said energy savings would be about $8,000 per day if all schools were closed.

The Bluestem district in Leon will start four-day school weeks next fall. The change will save about $100,000 a year — less than 2 percent of the district's total budget — but allowed officials to keep an elementary teaching position and a high school technical education program that would have been axed.

School will last an extra 40 minutes Monday through Thursday. That will result in 70 fewer classroom hours next school year, but the district will meet the state requirement of 1,116 hours.

The new schedule "still is a concern for a few parents," especially those who will need child care when school is out, said Randy Rivers, Bluestem superintendent.

He said several district employees and even some high school students have said they plan to provide child care on Fridays next school year. Rivers is trying to arrange training for new providers in coming months.

"With any change you make in education, you've got to give people time to think about and process what it's going to mean for them and their lives," Rivers said.

Teachers

Many districts in the state survey said they are looking at increasing class sizes, especially in elementary schools.

The biggest savings in bigger class sizes is eliminating teaching positions.

School administrators don't need approval of the union to lay off teachers, but the district and union leaders would have to ask teachers to vote for a pay cut.

In a state education department survey, the Wichita district said it would consider cutting the equivalent of 320 full-time positions of roughly 7,000 total.

If a district can't eliminate enough positions through attrition, teachers with less than three years with the district are the most vulnerable to layoffs.

If the newer teachers leave, there's a fair chance they'll never return, said Dale Dennis, deputy state education commissioner.

Many teachers at districts in the Wichita area have already agreed to a pay freeze this school year.

"Teachers have already given up pay increases," said Larry Landwehr, president of the union United Teachers of Wichita. "They believe they're doing their part."

Statewide, teacher salary and benefit packages this year increased by 1.1 percent, compared with an increase of 4 percent the two previous school years, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards.

All-day kindergarten

All-day kindergarten programs have become popular in Kansas, even though state funding supports only half-day programs.

Some districts, including Wichita, have used an increase in overall state funding to offer all-day kindergarten at no additional cost to parents. Others have stuck with half-day programs or asked families to pay the difference.

Andover launched a fee-based all-day kindergarten program last fall. Families who opt for all-day kindergarten pay $275 a month for the additional half-day. Families of students who meet federal guidelines for reduced-price meals pay $137.50 a month; those who qualify for free meals can enroll at no additional cost.

"So far it's popular and seems to work well," said Keturah Austin, spokeswoman for the Andover district.

In Haysville, voters twice rejected a tax increase to fund all-day kindergarten. The most recent proposal, voted down last spring, would have cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $6 a year.

"People are just not willing to dig into their pockets to support all-day kindergarten," said Brian Daily, a Haysville father who ran unsuccessfully for school board. "Other things come first."

In Wichita, where about 70 percent of students come from low-income families, the district spends about $5 million a year to provide full-day kindergarten to all students. School leaders say the additional time is critical for low-income and minority students, who often start school behind their peers.

Transportation

Families in some suburban districts have long enjoyed a ride to school on the district's dime. Not anymore.

The state pays only for students living 2.5 miles or more from a school to ride the bus.

"You just transport what you have to," Dennis said.

Among cuts being considered in Derby is a reduction in bus service, said Wilford, the superintendent. Derby provides bus service for students who live within 2.5 miles of a school and rides in the evening to students involved in after-school activities who live more than 2.5 miles from school.

"People realize that something's gotta give," Wilford said. "What we offer currently to students and families is an exceptional educational experience.... Anytime you have to cut back, you provide less, you affect the quality."

Other districts have tightened bus routes or guidelines. Maize recently began enforcing a long-standing rule that children can be picked up or dropped off at only one location, a move that simplified routes but angered some families.

"There was some (cost) savings, but it was mainly a safety thing," said Doug Powers, Maize superintendent. "We bus over 4,000 kids a day, and if you lose one, that's too many."

In Wichita, transportation service is offered to students who choose to attend magnet schools. They are bused at no cost to families who live anywhere in the district and more than 2.5 miles from school.

Not including fuel, busing magnet students cost the district roughly $2.8 million out of the $13 million total in discretionary money it spent on busing last year.

Block scheduling

Several high schools in the area operate on block scheduling, which generally means students have four longer class periods each day versus seven shorter ones.

Teachers have said it provides more cohesive and intensive learning.

Block scheduling is usually more expensive than shorter periods because it requires more teachers.

A legislative audit of the Derby school district in December suggested the high school could save $600,000 over five years if it reduced overtime by going to a traditional class schedule instead of its current blocks.

"For the most part we like the block schedule, but there are different types of blocks out there," Wilford said. "We're looking and seeing if there's one that could maybe provide a cost savings."

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Reach Lori Yount at 316-268-6269 or lyount@wichitaeagle.com.

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