More than $2 million found for schools

06/07/2011 12:00 AM

06/07/2011 6:49 AM

The Wichita school district has received a more than $2 million reprieve after months of news about impending budget cuts, scaled-back programs and job losses.

Superintendent John Allison told board members Monday the district will get about $2.6 million he hadn't anticipated for the coming year, including higher-than-projected reimbursements for special education and Medicaid services.

That means some of the programs on the chopping block could be saved — or cut back instead of eliminated.

"A bit of good news," Allison said.

His budget-cutting plan, presented over the past several months, was designed to fill a $30 million shortfall in state and federal funding. It would cut 278 full-time positions and eliminate several popular programs.

After a brief discussion Monday, board members directed Allison to come back to the board next week with updated recommendations.

"I think you know what our concerns are," board president Connie Dietz told Allison. "We talk to you often enough — publicly here, and we have individual conversations with you.

"We have faith in our administration, so we will just send you back to the drawing board to give us your recommendations."

At the start of the meeting, several community members spoke on behalf of programs such as elementary orchestra classes, C-team athletic programs and high school librarians.

"The answer to our budget situation is not to sacrifice our children's future," said Darla Snyder, who spoke on behalf of middle school music programs.

"Just like sports, (fine arts) gives students an opportunity to feel connected to something bigger than themselves."

Several speakers suggested ways to increase funding for music and athletic programs, such as raising the $50 annual pay-to-play and instrument rental fees or charging admission to middle- and high-school concerts.

"In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to pay to hear beautiful music," said Lori Richey, whose three children learned to play stringed instruments in fifth grade. "But this isn't a perfect world."

Rod Nelson, another parent, urged the board to consider partnerships with private music instructors to keep the elementary orchestra program going, possibly two days a week instead of three.

He also proposed raising instrument rental fees and charging a $25 instructional fee to the 1,100 students who participate in fifth-grade strings programs.

Laura Kilgur suggested fortifying the budget for C-team and sophomore sports through booster clubs, corporate sponsorships or increased pay-to-play fees.

Board members applauded the parents' initiative and asked Allison to consider their suggestions as he reformulates his plan.

"Often we have the public come forward and say, 'Please don't cut here,' " said board member Lanora Nolan. "But we don't often get alternatives."

Allison cautioned board members that the additional funding for next year's budget is not a windfall. The budget picture in future years is expected to be as bad or worse, he said.

"We are here because of many years of very poor decision making in Topeka," he said. "They continue to chip away at it and chip away at it. Unfortunately, as I've said all year long, I don't think this is the end."

Allison said sustainability will be a major factor in his revised budget plan. He reminded board members that five new schools — one high school, two K-8 schools and two elementaries — are scheduled to open in the fall of 2012.

"I don't want to bring you something when I know we will turn around and potentially have the same conversation six months from now," he said. "The yo-yo impact in the community and the schools is detrimental."

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