Facing cost increases of up to $30 million next school year and no additional state funding, the Wichita school district’s chief financial officer said leaders will have to consider laying off teachers or other personnel.
“We have a big enough hole to fill that we’re probably going to get into staff cuts,” Jim Freeman said Tuesday.
“We’re getting to the point where any of the cuts now are going to hurt us.”
According to Freeman’s updated projections for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins in July, estimated cost increases for Wichita schools – the state’s largest district – will range from $16 million to $30 million. Revenue is expected to be flat under the state’s new block grant funding system.
“The board has to be given the options to look at,” Freeman said. “But there’s not enough dollars, quite frankly, in the non-salary cuts we’re looking at.”
The district avoided layoffs last year by tapping into its contingency reserves and cutting other areas, such as classroom supplies and adult education programs, Freeman said.
This year “we’re going to be going the other direction,” he said. “We’re going to start talking about that now so we have some time to work through that.”
School board members will meet for a workshop March 21 to begin building the budget and consider options for cuts.
Other options the board may consider: shortening the school year and lengthening the school day but moving to four-day school weeks.
“That’s on the table,” Freeman said. Leaders considered those options briefly during budget talks several years ago but decided the estimated cost savings weren’t significant enough.
“We’ll look at that again and see if any of the data has changed,” he said. “There will be some things on the table that we might not have time to plan and do.
“But understand that fiscal year ’17’s flat funding looks bad for us … but fiscal year ’18 is not getting any better. Until the revenues in the state start coming back up and the Legislature is willing to put more money into education, we’re stuck in this kind of a format.”
The school district’s 2015-16 budget was $648 million – about $35 million less than the previous year’s budget. The district cut some programs and expenses, raised property taxes and froze teacher pay.
During a media briefing at the School Service Center on Tuesday, Freeman noted several programs that have saved the district thousands or even millions of dollars in recent years.
Two new carpet cutting machines allow crews to better estimate supply and reduce waste when they install carpet at the district’s 100-plus attendance centers, he said. A fire extinguisher repair truck allows workers to service or pressure check the district’s 4,500 extinguishers on site rather than transporting them back to the service center, saving time and labor.
“These are little things that make a big difference,” Freeman said.
Nevertheless, the district’s expenses continue to rise and are expected to do so again next school year.
Officials’ top concern next year – and the largest projected cost increase – will be for the district’s self-funded health insurance reserves, which needs a boost of $7.5 million to $15 million to remain viable, Freeman said.
Other estimated increases by category include:
▪ Utilities – electricity, heating fuel, water and sewer costs: $675,000 to $1 million. Next year, because of bond projects, the district will add more than 367,000 square feet of space at six locations. Westar Energy rate increases also will add to the district’s expenses, Freeman said.
▪ Transportation – $276,000 to more than $1 million. Wichita will require more buses next school year, in part to serve the new Southeast High School.
▪ Property insurance – $200,000 to $1.6 million. The low estimate includes a likely increase in premiums; the high estimate includes a transfer to keep reserves at a safe amount, Freeman said.
▪ Software – $1.2 million to $1.7 million. The estimate includes regular license increases and additional software aimed at boosting the district’s cybersecurity in response to a computer hacking attempt last fall.
▪ Textbooks – $2.5 million to $5 million.
▪ Enrollment (including increases in high-needs students) – $800,000 to $2.1 million. The district’s enrollment has increased steadily over the past several years, requiring additional teachers to maintain reasonable class sizes, Freeman said. High-needs students, including low-income children, refugees and English language learners, require more resources.