Wichita school officials see reason for hope with funding increase

Wichita school leaders say a last-minute increase to state education funding as the Kansas Legislature wrapped up its session could mean they won’t have to slash the district’s budget this year.

“We’re very thankful that we had elected leaders who continued to work diligently up to the very last second to support public education,” Wichita superintendent John Allison said Monday.

“The increase is incremental, but it’s our first increase in a number of years … so that’s a step in the right direction.”

The budget, which is still subject to Gov. Sam Brownback’s line-item veto, spends $40 million more on education. That’s about $58 more in per-pupil funding, which translates to about $4.2 million for Wichita schools.

About this time last year, district leaders had presented a budget with nearly $30 million in cuts after lawmakers reduced the per-pupil allocation by $232.

The final district budget eliminated about 230 jobs, including 150 teaching positions. The Wichita district replaced high school librarians with library clerks, eliminated its elementary school orchestra program, closed Blackbear Bosin Academy, reduced technology spending and cut the number of schools that receive Title 1 money intended to help needy students.

So this year looks better, Allison said.

But budget experts are just beginning to analyze the potential impact of other legislative actions, he said, including changes to funding for at-risk students and one that could reduce state aid aimed at equalizing property tax differences between wealthy and poor districts.

Meanwhile, the district predicts higher costs for things like health care, fuel and utilities, and a reduction of $1 million or more in federal Title 1 funding, Allison said.

“The potential of cuts to public education could still be significant as we move into 2014 and beyond,” Allison said.

Wichita, the state’s largest school district, serves about 50,000 students. Nearly three-fourths receive free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, and a growing number do not speak English at home.

Representatives from the district and the local teachers union are in the midst of negotiations for a contract set to begin Aug. 1. Both sides have been awaiting word from Topeka regarding school funding, which could affect a proposed raise for teachers.

School district employees haven’t received a raise since 2008.

Allison said he didn’t know whether the increase in state funding would translate to raises. Talks are set to resume May 30.

“It’s really too early for us to tell at this point, until we get a chance to analyze it,” he said.

Allison said he hoped to present an initial budget overview to the Wichita school board June 11. Board members will consider the budget in July and are expected to approve it in August.

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