June 5, 2011

School board to start 'serious discussion' on what gets cut

Wichita school board members have spent the past several months hearing what they should cut from the district's $630 million budget.

Wichita school board members have spent the past several months hearing what they should cut from the district's $630 million budget.

On Monday they'll start evaluating and debating Superintendent John Allison's plan, which would eliminate hundreds of jobs and several popular programs.

"This is where we really get to the serious discussion," said board member Betty Arnold. "It's really the beginning."

The board doesn't approve its final budget until August. But the district has moved forward with many of the proposed cuts already — including layoffs — to meet state-imposed deadlines to renew teacher contracts and to plan for next school year.

Some board members say they intend to ask Allison for alternative cuts as they weigh the impact of his proposal and consider feedback from the public. So far the superintendent has presented just over $30 million in cuts, the expected shortfall in state and federal funding for next school year.

"I think all of us have something we would work very hard to save," said board member Jeff Davis. "The question's going to be: Where do those dollars come from?"

Allison's proposal, presented at board meetings over the past several months, includes:

* Cutting 278 full-time positions, including 223 teachers

* Eliminating 24 high school coaching positions and the same number of C-team and sophomore athletic teams

* Replacing 10 high school librarians with eight library clerks

* Eliminating the fifth-grade strings music program at elementary schools and cutting some middle school band teachers

* Closing Blackbear Bosin Academy, an alternative middle school at 6123 E. 11th St., and moving the program to Jardine Middle School

* Ending district funding for several popular programs such as Parents as Teachers, National Academic League and the AmeriCorps mentoring program

Allison said earlier this year that he planned to offer cuts beyond $30 million, both to give board members options and in case the shortfall was larger than projected. But last month he abandoned that plan, saying adding positions or programs to the list would cause unnecessary tension.

"I think folks are on edge," he told board members at the May 9 meeting. "The stress level is incredibly high."

Davis said he is most concerned about the plan to cut athletic teams for underclassmen. He fears the move, expected to save about $172,000, would keep some students from participating in high school sports.

"You see our kids performing very well academically if they're tied into fine arts or sports," he said. "I've shared my concerns with John (Allison) and his staff, and they know where I stand. ... I'm going to do all I can to save that program."

Allison's plan also calls for raising ticket prices by $1 to sporting events at high schools and middle schools, which would bring in about $50,000. Officials said the price increase was needed to avoid further athletic cuts.

Board member Barb Fuller said she hopes to find a way to keep certified librarians in high schools. The plan to replace them with unlicensed clerks would save about $410,000, Allison said.

"I don't know whether we'll have alternatives or not" at Monday's meeting, Fuller said. "My plan at this time is to stand up for librarians.

"With all the technology we have, our kids going to libraries at lunchtime, all the research papers they have to do. ... That position is very important. I can't believe we can have a comprehensive high school without a librarian."

District spokeswoman Susan Arensman said Allison does not plan to present additional cuts during the school board meeting Monday.

Allison "will take direction from the board in terms of potential options they'd like him to look at," she said.

Board member Lynn Rogers said any cuts will be painful, and that Allison's plan reflects input from teachers, principals and the general public.

"He is suggesting the things he thinks are the best of the worst," Rogers said. "If he brings a list of additional cuts, to me that just stretches out the uncertainty for staff."

Other options, he said, could be larger class sizes, fewer sports or fine-arts programs and school closings.

"We have said from Day One that everything is on the table," Rogers said. "We also all realize if we take something off the list, something has to go on the list. ... My mind is open to any and all cuts."

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