Teacher pay topped a preliminary list of budget priorities presented Thursday to Wichita school board members.
“We know we need to be competitive, and this is a big priority for us,” said Susan Willis, chief financial officer for the district. “Looking at our needs related to current employees and … being able to recruit for the vacancies we have.”
During a special meeting marking the end of the fiscal year, Willis presented a list of about a dozen categories where board members could direct additional funding for the coming year.
The Wichita school district, the state’s largest, would receive about $17 million more in general state aid next year under a new school finance formula approved by Kansas lawmakers. The Kansas Supreme Court will decide next month whether the plan is constitutional.
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Willis said uncertainty about the funding plan “is going to make budget preparation extremely tight” this year. Board members likely won’t see a detailed budget until Aug. 7, two weeks before they’re scheduled to approve it.
On Thursday she presented a “first discussion” list of spending priorities that she said was based on board members’ comments during meetings and their search for a new superintendent.
Heading the list was “recruitment and retention through compensation.” The rest of the items listed were:
▪ At-risk programs, including those aimed at increasing graduation rates
▪ Curriculum and textbook needs
▪ Student technology
▪ Deferred maintenance needs
▪ Expanding pre-kindergarten
▪ Professional development
▪ Expanding technical education
▪ Strengthening STEM and other academic programs
▪ Career and academic counselors to work with students on individual plans of study
▪ Programs aimed at improving students’ social-emotional skills
Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said he was “glad to see that pay is being made a priority” as the district sets its budget course.
“What is truly best for students are teachers that are well-rested, well-compensated and treated well,” Wentz said Thursday. “We look forward to further discussions on how to continue to make USD 259 the very best district possible.”
It’s not clear when teacher contract negotiations will begin. The process, normally underway by March or April, was delayed again this year while officials awaited action by state lawmakers and the courts on school funding.
Last year, negotiations lasted several months and required help from a federal mediator. A contract approved last fall included a $500 one-time payment for teachers but raised health insurance costs for most employees.
Board member Lynn Rogers said additional state funding will be welcome relief for Wichita schools, but warned that the amount likely won’t make a dent in the district’s needs.
“We’ve had cuts of almost $98 million (over the past several years), and the current plan only adds $16 million or $17 million,” Rogers said.
“Which is a big chunk, but it’s going to be difficult to replace everything right away. So I think we have to create realistic expectations as to what we can do.”
Language in the new school finance formula requires that funding for academically at-risk students be spent on programs approved by the Kansas State Board of Education, Willis noted. “There will be some additional accountability measures there,” she said.
Not included among the district’s budget priorities: a controversial calendar that lengthened the school day and trimmed 15 days from the school year.
“That decision had already been made related to fiscal year 2018,” Willis said. “So that certainly would be an item we would want to have for future discussion.”