June 25, 2012

Wichita superintendent: District doesn’t have enough money

— Testifying at the state school finance trial, Wichita Superintendent John Allison said Monday that the district is not being provided enough money to meet state requirements and community expectations.

— Testifying at the state school finance trial, Wichita Superintendent John Allison said Monday that the district is not being provided enough money to meet state requirements and community expectations.

“We do not (have adequate resources), not for all of our students,” Allison said. “What you see is some students having success … We’re not able to provide that success for all our students.”

Allison also testified that the state has had the district on “corrective action” for the past eight years, meaning that it’s not reaching state goals on yearly achievement tests.

He also testified that the state standards are growing tougher to meet year by year.

Based on preliminary test results, the district will fall further behind and have “fewer schools that will make adequate yearly progress” for 2012, he said.

Wichita is one of 54 districts that sued the state. The districts argue that because of budget cuts enacted during the recession, the Legislature has failed in its constitutional duty to provide adequate support for education.

Allison defined that as “when you’ve got your students meeting the goals and expectations and accountability measures they’re being held accountable for.”

The Legislature slightly increased funding this year, but the plaintiff schools are arguing that the money is too little. And they say it’s probably only temporary, given large projected budget cuts that the Legislature is expected to make to cover revenue losses from the major tax-cut bill also passed in the recently concluded session.

State base funding, the primary operational money for schools, has fallen substantially since 2008.

The state is arguing that the base money is only one piece of the school funding pie and that counting federal money and optional local property tax increases, school spending is actually higher than it was before the Legislature began cutting base aid.

Arthur Chalmers, a Wichita lawyer representing the state, repeatedly pressed Allison over the link between higher school funding and better student achievement.

He pointed out that test scores had gone up in 2005-06, shortly after a court had ruled school funding inadequate and the Legislature raised payments to the schools.

But, Chalmers said, scores also went up in 2010-11, after cuts in funding.

Allison responded that “children are not widgets” and there can be a time lag between increased funding and school improvement. For example, 2010-11 increases could be attributable to additional training that teachers received when the funding was up and continued to use when funding went down, he said.

Chalmers implied that Allison’s answers were inconsistent — that he seemed to be claiming there was no time lag between increased funding and performance improvements in some instances, but several years of time lag in others.

Allison replied that he didn’t testify about what was behind the 2005-06 performance increases, which came three years before he joined the district in 2009.

Chalmers also elicited an admission from Allison that Wichita could raise more money for schools if it raised its local option budget, a property tax that can be used to supplement state funding.

The Wichita district is the largest school district in the state, representing about 10 percent of the statewide school population.

The district also has a large and growing population of poor students, Allison testified.

He testified that more than seven out of 10 qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a traditional measure of poverty for schools, and that three out of 10 students come from households that are in “extreme poverty,” struggling to meet even basic subsistence needs.

Allison said the district’s first efforts to make cuts were “as far away from the classroom as possible,” such as negotiating reductions in software licensing fees.

However, as cuts continued, they had increasing effects on teachers and other staff, which make up 75 percent of the district’s budget, Allison said.

Teacher cuts were mainly made through attrition, but in supporting departments of the district, “individuals lost jobs, lost paychecks,” Allison said. Central administration was cut 33 to 35 percent, he said.

One of the major programs that suffered deep cuts was summer school, where the district helps students address academic deficiencies that surface during the school year. Despite a $90 fee for those who can afford it, and a sliding scale for the rest, the program isn’t self-supporting and needs general-fund money, he said.

In other areas, the district has eliminated driver’s education, fifth-grade orchestra and the Parents as Teachers program. The district also has increased class sizes and made large cutbacks in counselors, learning coaches, family engagement, school resource officers, clerical support and field trips, Allison testified.

All employees have had their pay frozen for the past four years, Allison testified.

As a result, the district has been losing experienced teachers to neighboring districts where the teachers, as new hires, will get credit for their time in the profession and advanced degrees they’ve earned during the pay freeze.

Testimony by Wichita school officials is expected to continue Tuesday. Scheduled on the stand are chief financial officer Linda Jones, director of secondary schools Lori Doyle and Hamilton Middle School principal Amy Hungria.

The trial began June 4.

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