Wichita schools put new bond issue work on hold

Wichita school leaders decided tonight to "pause and study" the district's $370 million bond issue, a move that could change or delay new schools, athletic facilities and other projects.

Board members also pledged to review its system for busing students, potentially reducing the number of buses and the cost associated with running them.

Superintendent John Allison recommended the moves during a special board meeting to discuss Gov. Sam Brownback's proposed budget and suggest preliminary cuts.

Allison said a projected $30.4 million budget cut to Wichita schools is "a real concern" that is likely to once again mean job losses and the elimination of programs and services.

Projected losses of more than $63 million in state funding targeted to the bond issue and millions more in federal funding for school storm shelters means "everything is on the table," Allison said — including bond projects.

"This does not mean that we are changing the bond plan at this time, but pausing so we can re-evaluate everything," Allison said.

"When you look at the economic aspects around which the bond plan was considered, that's changed dramatically," he said.

Bond issue projects that are under construction will continue.

Wichita voters narrowly approved the $370 million bond issue in November 2008.

The bond issue — the largest in the state's history — was proposed to pay for dozens of projects, including six new schools in the high-growth northeast and southeast areas of the district, $61 million in athletic facilities improvements and $17 million in technical education programs.

Five new schools, including two high schools, already are under construction. When board member Jeff Davis asked Allison how the district planned to staff those buildings, Allison said, "It's going to be difficult."

Allison said the $30 million budget cut for the coming year translates to about 600 full-time jobs.

Brownback's proposal includes a $75 cut in the base state aid per pupil this fiscal year. Allison has recommended using $5.2 million from the district's contingency reserve fund to cover the shortfall.

"This is a one-time fix. We didn't want to be in this situation and have to lay people off or eliminate programs" in the middle of the school year, Allison said.

Impending cuts for the 2011-12 school year are more grim, he said. Brownback's proposed budget includes a $232 cut in the base state aid per pupil. For the Wichita district — the state's largest, with about 50,000 students — that translates to more than $11 million.

Add additional state funds targeted for special education, transportation, bilingual and at-risk students, and the projected impact to Wichita schools is $16.3 million, Allison said.

But the district also faces the loss of $10 million in federal stimulus funds and reductions in federal funding for special education that will not be covered by projected increases in state funding, he said.

"We've fallen off a cliff," Allison said of the projected base aid per pupil. "What we're realizing now is it's not going to be short-term, and that's going to cause problems for us down the road."

Board president Connie Dietz said tonight's decision to re-evaluate bond projects likely will disappoint voters and others looking forward to those projects.

"I would say I share their pain," she said. "There's no way that we ... could have predicted the future economic conditions in the state when that bond issue was passed.

"The only sensible thing we can do at this point is to pause and study, and be good stewards with that money."

This year's Wichita schools budget is about $632 million — $10 million more than the previous year. The district cut about $14 million from its proposed 2010-11 budget in part because of increasing costs for utilities and other operations.

Reductions included freezing salaries, eliminating driver's education, doing away with 79 positions and closing Metro Midtown Alternative High School.

In coming weeks, Allison plans to reconvene an advisory group of parents, school employees and community members to look at this year's budget picture and begin developing a list of specific cuts.

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