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Friday, July 25, 2014

Wichita school board restores sports, 44 jobs

By Suzanne Perez Tobias
The Wichita Eagle

Wichita high school C-team and sophomore sports survived the school district chopping block Monday, but the elementary orchestra program and high school librarians did not.

The school board also voted to restore 28 teaching positions, including half the middle school band and orchestra positions originally slated for elimination, and decided not to ask employees to take a furlough day.

Superintendent John Allison's final budget proposal includes $27.7 million in cuts for the 2011-12 school year. On Monday, he presented "add-backs" worth about $2.6 million, which officials said would come from higher-than-expected reimbursements for Medicaid and special-education services.

The school board voted 6-1 to approve Allison's recommendations. Board members will see a complete proposed budget July 18 and are expected to approve the budget Aug. 8.

Barb Fuller voted against Allison's revised plan, saying she was "disappointed" that athletics programs were restored but not librarians.

"So athletics has not been hurt, with our current changes, in our whole district budget?" Fuller asked.

Allison said the proposed elimination of C-team sports — estimated to save $172,000 — made up "a large chunk of what was a fairly limited budget."

He added that board members could face the same cuts or worse in coming years.

"I would love to be able to say we won't be back," Allison said. "I don't see next year being better, and potentially the year after."

Allison's plan would restore 44 full-time positions to the budget, including four learning coaches and four custodians, who would be "returned to schools with the greatest square-footage needs."

Walt Chappell, a member of the State Board of Education, urged board members during the public comment portion of Monday's meeting to restore all the proposed cuts and instead transfer money from the district's cash reserves to its general fund.

"That money is sitting there, and they could use it to educate students," Chappell said.

Board member Lynn Rogers said reserve funds "cannot be used unless we take them away from somewhere else," and that many are targeted to specific areas, such as special education and food services.

"These are not solutions. They've not been solutions for . . . the 10 or 20 times I've explained them to various groups that try to continue to mislead the public," he said.

Several board members voiced frustration over various parts of Allison's revised plan, but said they supported the compromises he proposed. For example, he proposed restoring 4.5 string-instrument teaching positions to middle schools to support beginning strings students.

Lanora Nolan said she threw a "hissy fit" when she first saw the plan because she wanted to find a way to keep the fifth-grade orchestra program.

"To watch (the district) be dismantled one brick at a time . . . It is really the most helpless feeling," she said.

"If we strip all of our fine arts out of the buildings because it's not a core curriculum, then I have to stop and ask: What are our kids going to read and write about, if they aren't having enriched life experiences?"

Nolan voted for Allison's plan, however, because she said it amounted to a reasonable compromise.

"I know we want to go through this with a laser and not a hatchet, and I appreciate the effort it took," she said. "Those weren't easy conversations."

Fuller said replacing certified high school librarians with library clerks "will certainly affect students" as well as teachers.

Allison said library clerks would not be allowed to supervise students, meaning classroom teachers would have to stay with their students during library time.

"It's going to be different," he said. But Allison said he asked high school principals to "look at where their priorities fell . . . and librarians weren't in that top tier."

Rogers said the $2.6 million in unexpected funding "helps us alleviate the pain a little bit, but the pain is still there.

"We've amputated a leg, and this basically lets us buy a crutch," he said. "None of us wants to vote for this . . . I know folks are going to be unhappy with us."

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