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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Future school bond projects on hold

BY SUZANNE PEREZ TOBIAS
The Wichita Eagle

Wichita school leaders decided Monday to "pause and study" the district's $370 million bond issue, a move that could alter or delay new schools, athletic facilities and other projects.

Board members also pledged to review the district's system for busing students, potentially reducing the number of buses and the cost associated with running them.

Superintendent John Allison recommended the moves during a special board meeting to discuss Gov. Sam Brownback's proposed budget and suggest preliminary cuts.

Allison said a projected $30.4 million budget cut to Wichita schools is "a real concern" that is likely to once again mean job losses and the elimination of programs and services.

Projected losses of more than $63 million in state matching funds for the bond issue and millions more in federal funding for school storm shelters means "everything is on the table," Allison said — including bond projects.

"This does not mean that we are changing the bond plan at this time, but pausing so we can re-evaluate everything," Allison said.

"When you look at the economic aspects around which the bond plan was considered, that's changed dramatically," he said.

Bond issue projects that are under construction — including a new high school — will continue. But those being designed could be altered or shifted to later phases of the construction timetable, Allison said.

Wichita voters narrowly approved the $370 million bond issue in November 2008.

The bond issue — the largest in the state's history — was proposed to pay for dozens of projects, including six new schools in the high-growth northeast and southeast areas of the district, $61 million in athletic facilities improvements and $17 million in technical education programs.

Five new schools already are under construction, marked with signs that say "Progress as Promised."

When board member Jeff Davis asked Allison on Monday how the district planned to staff those buildings, Allison said, "It's going to be difficult."

While nearly every Wichita public school was promised something in the 2008 bond issue, several are expecting major improvements or expansions, or are being completely rebuilt.

One pledge of the 2008 bond issue was new classrooms intended to lower the district's average class size. The original goal: 18-20 students in elementary schools and 22 students in core classes in middle and high schools.

Recent reductions in state funding for education will make that difficult if not impossible, Allison said. A $30 million budget cut for the coming year equates to about 600 full-time teaching positions, he said.

"We've fallen off a cliff," Allison said of the projected reduction in base state aid per pupil. "What we're realizing now is it's not going to be short-term, and that's going to cause problems for us down the road."

Brownback's proposal includes a $75 cut in the base state aid per pupil this fiscal year. Allison has recommended using $5.2 million from the district's contingency reserve fund to cover the shortfall.

"This is a one-time fix. We didn't want to be in this situation and have to lay people off or eliminate programs" in the middle of the school year, Allison said.

Impending cuts for next school year are more grim, he said. Brownback's budget includes a $232 cut in the base state aid per pupil. For the Wichita district — the state's largest, with about 50,000 students — that translates to more than $11 million.

Add additional state funds targeted for special education, transportation, bilingual and at-risk students — all of which are contingent on the base aid — and the projected impact to Wichita schools could be $16.3 million, Allison said.

The district also faces the loss of $10 million in federal stimulus funds and reductions in federal funding for special education that will not be covered by projected increases in state special-education funding, he said.

"When we cut, we've done that in areas as far away from the classroom as possible," Allison told board members.

"But that well isn't nearly as deep as it was. There's only so much we can continue to do without completely eliminating support services ... It's going to make discussions much more difficult."

Board members voted 5-0 Monday to accept Allison's recommendations to re-evaluate upcoming bond projects and review busing policies. Allison also pledged to review central office operations and "identify additional efficiencies."

Board president Connie Dietz said the moves likely will disappoint those looking forward to bond projects.

"I would say I share their pain," she said. "There's no way that we ... could have predicted the future economic conditions in the state when that bond issue was passed.

"The only sensible thing we can do at this point is to pause and study, and be good stewards with that money."

Bill Faflick, the district's athletic director, was one of more than 100 administrators, teachers and others who crowded into the North High lecture hall Monday to hear Allison's recommendations.

About 23 percent of the bond issue is slated for athletics, including all-weather tracks, artificial-turf fields, tennis courts and swimming pools that Faflick said in 2008 would give facilities "a much-needed facelift."

Monday he said he agreed officials should "make the best decisions now that will have the best effect long-term." Projects "still will be done," he said. "They just may not happen as quickly as we hoped."

This year's Wichita schools budget is about $632 million — $10 million more than the previous year. The district cut about $14 million from its proposed 2010-11 budget in part because of increasing costs for utilities and other operations.

Reductions included freezing salaries, eliminating driver's education, doing away with 79 positions and closing Metro Midtown Alternative High School.

In coming weeks, Allison plans to reconvene an advisory group of parents, school employees and community members to look at this year's budget picture and begin developing a list of specific cuts.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com.

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