Wichita students will have longer school days again next year, despite an impassioned plea from one board member who said the district could find other ways to cut its budget.
Joy Eakins was the sole vote Monday against a calendar that will once again mean a shortened school year but longer school days, a move intended to trim about $3 million from the district’s $662 million budget.
“This is not a good educational decision for our students and our community,” said Eakins. “There are other options. … We can figure out a way to change it back.”
The board voted 6-1 to approve a calendar recommended by superintendent John Allison, which sets the first day of school for most Wichita children on Aug. 23.
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Last year, Allison proposed the calendar change as a way to save on transportation, utilities and other costs. He said alternatives could be eliminating elementary school librarian positions and outsourcing custodial services.
Many local families say the transition has been more challenging than expected, particularly for young children and their families.
In an online survey conducted by the district, a majority of elementary school parents expressed concern about the longer school day, and many suggested modifying start times to end school earlier. Three-fourths of students responding to the survey agreed with the statement that “staying awake at the end of the day is a concern.”
Board member Betty Arnold said she and other board members also have concerns about the longer school day, but the revised calendar saved jobs.
“It wasn’t as though any of us believe that was the best thing in the interests of students, in the interests of teachers,” Arnold said. “Our motivation had to do with the budget, trying to stay afloat. And sometimes when you’re dealing with a budget, unpleasant decisions have to be made.
“We were trying to look at ways that we could save jobs and keep our doors open,” she said. “And it’s not a good place to be.”
Eakins said the district should have considered tapping into carry-over cash at the end of the budget year, funds that often supplement the textbook fund for future purchases. Arnold’s comment about keeping the doors open is “a straw man,” she said.
“This is not a vote on keeping the doors open. … That’s not what this decision is about,” Eakins said. “We can do both as a district if we make some decisions here tonight.”
Allison said the longer school day and shorter year “was not ever a proposal that we felt, unfortunately, strengthened our academics.”
“It was, in comparison to the other options, the least of a list of bad choices,” he said.
Allison said his staff is still analyzing potential costs and other consequences of changing start times in an effort to dismiss elementary school students earlier. At most Wichita elementary schools, classes start at 9 a.m. and end at 4:40 p.m.
Allison said several factors cause the Wichita school day to be longer than those in many other Kansas districts, including a 40-minute duty-free lunch period that is part of the Wichita teachers’ contract.
“Our duty-free lunch period is, on average, twice what other districts have,” Allison said. “So that’s an extra 20 minutes when you look at … what’s built into the school day.”
Board member Lynn Rogers said cutting 20 minutes from the teachers’ lunch period would shorten the school day. “But that would have to be something that’s negotiated. Teachers would have to agree to do that,” he said.
During Monday’s debate, Eakins also criticized the wording of the final question on the district’s survey, saying it was “designed to get an answer that people want to keep the calendar.”
The question asked respondents which calendar scenario they preferred for next school year, noting that a longer day and shorter year “would not increase operating costs.” Returning to the previous year’s calendar, the survey question said, would “require an additional $3 million be cut from the 2017-18 budget.”
“I’m sorry, Superintendent Allison, but it was a biased survey,” Eakins said. “Surveying 101 says when you ask a question, you give your two options. You don’t lead for an answer, and the question did lead for an answer.”
“I would disagree with that,” Allison responded. “This was not a survey that was designed to get an answer. It was a survey designed to get information for you all, which you received.”