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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Wichita principal testifies in school finance trial about effect of cuts

By Dion Lefler
The Wichita Eagle

TOPEKA — The principal of one of Wichita’s poorest schools gave judges in the state school finance trial a ground-level lesson Tuesday in how cutbacks have hurt her effort to teach a difficult-to-teach population.

Amy Hungria, principal of Hamilton Middle School, said cuts have dramatically hurt her efforts to educate students in a neighborhood plagued by generations of poverty, prostitution and drug dealing.

“We not only focus on the educational aspect of it,” Hungria said of running the school. “We are also clothing our students, feeding our students. I refer to our nurse’s office as the clinic … That takes a lot of time and energy in order to meet those basic needs first.”

The school is situated on South Broadway, between Lincoln and Pawnee.

About 96 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, a traditional measure used by schools to define poverty. And of the remaining 4 percent, some would qualify if the parents would fill out the paperwork, Hungria said.

A fourth of the students are in special-education classes; another fourth are in the English-as-a-second-language program, Hungria testified. Some are in both.

And when it comes to standardized tests, “over 50 percent of our students are not where they’re supposed to be at this time,” she said.

School districts, including Wichita, are suing the state, alleging that the Legislature and governor have failed in their constitutional duty to provide adequate funds for public education.

Hungria was the last of a half-dozen Wichita teachers and administrators to testify in the trial, which began June 4.

Because of budget cuts, closed schools and boundary realignment, the student population at Hamilton will rise from 524 pupils at the end of the last school year to 663 next year, she said.

“And I’m not seeing any additional allocation,” she added.

She testified to a catalog of cuts at Hamilton since the Legislature, faced with its own recession-caused budget problems, began reducing school per-pupil funding three years ago.

She said three of the biggest losses were a school-resource officer, a truant officer and an assistant principal. They dealt with discipline problems and at times would go to students’ doors to bring them to school if the parents didn’t make them come.

Now, she said, she has to divert her own time from educational leadership to discipline and school safety.

“It is not unknown for myself and a janitor to ask vagrants to leave our school property so they don’t interact with our students,” she said.

She testified that when she came to the school in 2008, she had full-time math and literacy coaches to work with her teachers; now she shares those positions with other schools.

“I essentially went from having 10 days a week to two days a week,” she said.

She also lost two of her nine special-education teachers, a math teacher and a language arts teacher. The school librarian is now part time and also teaches two classes in language arts.

Sixth-grade band has been canceled and the seventh- and eighth-grade band classes were combined to save money, Hungria said.

All over the school, classes are getting larger. “As class sizes continue to increase, students are getting less one-on-one assistance” of the type they need to have a realistic chance of succeeding, she said.

The outcomes issue

A key contention in the state’s case is that increased funding doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes for students.

Gaye Tibbets, one of the Wichita lawyers hired to represent the state, pointed out that some of the school’s test scores had improved, especially among special-education students, whose scores rose four percentage points in 2011, and eighth-grade math, where scores rose 14 percent.

However, she acknowledged that other scores were either flat or falling.

She also noted that the poverty-stricken students are eligible for as much as $1,800 a year worth of off-site and after-school tutoring.

Hungria said not as many students as she would like can take advantage of the tutoring opportunity.

The tutoring can be provided online, but “our families do not have electricity,” much less computers and Internet access, she said.

And while the tutors can go to the home, many of the children have to baby-sit younger siblings, and some families live in such substandard housing that parents are reluctant to allow outsiders in the home.

Hungria appeared to catch a sympathetic ear from at least one member of the three-judge panel that will decide the case.

Retired Sherman County District Judge Jack Burr said he found it unfair that schools like Hamilton are held to the same testing standards as all other schools.

“It seems to me like everybody’s going over the same high jump, but you’re having to wear a 25-pound weight belt or something,” Burr said.

He said although it doesn’t have anything to do with the case at hand, “I’ll vote for you for administrator of the year.”

“I just want another assistant principal,” Hungria replied.

Effect of cuts

Earlier, the Wichita school district’s chief financial officer, Linda Jones, testified to the overall situation for the district, saying that it has had to cut $53 million and 265 jobs because of state budget cuts and increased costs in the past three budget years.

“We had 265 less people on our payroll. Those are real people,” Jones said.

The state has cut base aid per pupil from $4,433 in 2009 to $3,780 this year. That cut, $653 a pupil, has cost Wichita about $47 million from 2009 to 2012, Jones testified.

In addition, the state cut about $4.7 million from the district’s state aid for capital building programs, Jones said.

Wichita did get additional money from the state – about $27 million — to fund increased enrollment of poor and non-English-speaking students, she said.

But the district also had to absorb millions of dollars in increased costs, including insurance, transportation, utilities and early-retirement obligations, Jones testified.

“Have there been any costs for the Wichita school district to educate its kids that have gone down?” asked Alan Rupe, a lawyer representing the school districts.

“I really can’t think of any,” Jones testified.

Overall, the district’s general annual general fund has dropped from about $339 million to $312 million in the last three budget years, she said.

State officials have argued that when all sources of funds – not just the general fund — are taken into account, schools actually are getting more money than before the recession and the onset of state cuts.

Jones testified that position is misleading because its calculations include state employee pension funds that merely pass through the district, and funds from federal economic stimulus actions that won’t be available in the future.

Arthur Chalmers, a lawyer representing the state, pressed Jones on how much money is returned to the district by principals who underspend their budgets.

Jones initially estimated about $1 million, but later corrected herself and reduced that to about $200,000.

“We redirect all that money,” she said. “Generally it’s redirected to special ed, where there’s the most need.”

Reach Dion Lefler at dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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