Wichita schools to seek help deciding $25 million in cuts

Wichita school leaders expect another $25 million in cuts to state aid next school year, and they're asking parents and teachers to help set priorities.

The list of possible choicesfor parents and teachers includes programs often seen on the chopping block, such as art, music, librarians and computers, and services thedistrict hasn't considered cutting before, including five-day school weeks, alternative high schools, all-day kindergarten and latchkey programs.

Parents on school site councils and school staff will be asked to choose only half of the items from a list of programs and services as most important to them.

School board members will also talk to district residents about the budget next Monday at Southeast High School and West High School during a "Board's Night Out." The meetings will start at 6:30 p.m.

At Monday night's board meeting, board member Betty Arnold said there hasn't been enough emphasis on a quality education's value to the state's economy and its ability to attract employers.

"By cutting education, you're cutting the probability Kansas will ever be able to recover," she said. "I'm not sure if that message is being received by elected representatives or the community."

Wichita administrators stressed they aren't asking for cut lists. Cut lists won't come until after leaders have sifted through feedback from other community and employee groups.

The state's largest district, with roughly 50,000 students, has already cut about $34 million from its $621 million budget.

The continued decline in state revenue has the district expecting to lose another $25 million in per-student funding next school year, superintendent John Allison said.

"It can't be done with cut a little here and cut a little there," he said. "We're talking services, entire programs... chunks of staffing."

Cuts to the per-student funding come out of the $251 million — or about 40 percent — of the total budget that the district can spend at its discretion. More than 80 percent of that is spent on salaries.

The other 60 percent of the $621 million budget is earmarked for specific programs, such as special education or vocational training, and can't be legally spent on anything else, Allison said.

The parent and teacher value rankings will be due March 12. A stakeholder committee of about 60 staff, parents and community members will start meeting in March to give more input to district leaders.

A budget will be proposed in July, and the board needs to adopt a budget in August.

The funding outlook beyond next year remains uncertain, Allison said.

Wichita received about $19 million in federal recovery act dollars for this school year and next, specifically for special education programs and for schools with high poverty rates.

The state also used about $170 million in two-year-only federal stimulus money to help pay school districts and avoid further cuts.

"It's the white elephant in the room," Allison said. "A year beyond that, how are we going to fill that hole?"

Wichita is also one of 72 school districts supporting legal action against the state over cuts to K-12 funding. School leaders said they know a lawsuit could take years to be resolved, and they don't consider it a short-term fix for budget shortfalls.