Wichita superintendent: District at 'edge of a cliff' in cuts

At a parent-organized meeting Tuesday night, Wichita school board members and superintendent continued their campaign to explain how next school year's estimated $25 million in budget cuts would reach classrooms and change how the state's largest district operates.

"Last year took care of about anything that didn't have to do with schools," superintendent John Allison said of $25 million in state aid reductions this school year. "We're at the edge of a cliff as we look at our budget for next year."

The town hall meeting on school finance Tuesday night at Glenn Park Christian Church was sponsored by the Kelly Liberal Arts Academy site council and drew a much smaller crowd than the district-led meetings Monday night, which roughly 900 people attended.

Jeremy Albert, one of the Kelly site council parents and worship director at Glenn Park, said he wished more than two dozen people had showed up, but he thought participants asked pointed questions that needed to be answered, including just how much money schools spend in classrooms and how much on administrators.

"There are skewed facts in the Legislature — a discrepancy between what the legislators believe is going on in education and what is going on in education," said Albert, whose father is an administrator in the Topeka school district.

Some federal and state lawmakers were invited to the meeting, he said, but they did not attend.

Allison reiterated that all cuts in per-student aid come out of $251 million — or 40 percent of the total budget — that the district can spend on whatever it chooses. The rest of the budget is required by law to be spent in certain places.

For example, he said bond money that paid for new artificial turf fields at high schools this summer could only be used for bond projects, not classroom teachers.

The district is asking parents and teachers at each school to rank what programs they value most, including arts, sports and five-day school weeks. Allison said district leaders would use the input when deciding where to make cuts.

"What I heard over and over is, 'This is hard. I value everything we're talking about,' " he said.

Michael O'Donnell said he attended because he is pastor of a church that runs an after-school program at Kelly and is on the board of the South YMCA, and he wanted schools to know there was support from the community if cutting school days meant increased need for child care for working parents.

O'Donnell said he paid for his children to go to private school, but he still worries about growing class sizes in Wichita as money for teacher salaries is reduced.

"We've got to provide a public education," he said.

For Albert, the most pressing issue of school finance is the effect on his daughter, who attends kindergarten at Kelly.

"The most important thing is my kids have the same opportunity to have the same high-quality education," he said. "We can't get lethargic about it. If we have poor schools, we have a poor economy."

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