Wichita school board decides against raising property taxes

The Wichita school district won’t raise property taxes and is forecasting to spend $639 million educating students in 2013-14 – about the same as last year.

But school officials cautioned this might be the last year without deep cuts, depending on the outcome of an ongoing school-finance lawsuit before the state Supreme Court and the Legislature’s reaction to it.

On Monday night, the school board tentatively OK’d what is basically a holding-pattern budget.

The final spending level is 1.7 percent more than the $628 million budget approved last year.

But it’s about the same as the spending level in an amended budget passed by the board in May that accounted for extra income and spending from the addition of more than 400 pupils in the 2012-13 school year, plus other additional revenue from federal sources, said district spokeswoman Wendy Johnson.

The budget’s total proposed tax rate will be 57.178 mills, just a shade less than the 2012-13 levy of 57.184.

The budget also includes an increase in the number of district employees.

For the next year, the district is forecasting 6,777 full-time equivalent positions, up 136 from last year but down by about 77 from 2009-10, district records show.

Of this year’s increase, 131 are teachers, said Jim Freeman, the district’s chief financial officer.

The budget will go to a public hearing before the board on Aug. 12.

Board members could vote to shift spending inside the budget or reduce spending but won’t be able to increase it past the total spending they approved Monday.

Freeman cautioned the board that the next few years of budgets will probably be more about managing shrinkage.

The school district has already drawn down most of its usable reserves. In the coming months, administrators will be drawing up a number of contingency plans for scenarios in which school funding goes up, goes down or stays the same, said Superintendent John Allison.

Static or falling funding are the most likely scenarios, he said.

Much depends on the Supreme Court case, in which districts including Wichita have sued the Legislature, contending that it has failed its constitutional duty to provide adequate funding for education.

A three-judge panel has ruled in favor of the school districts, but the final call will come on the state’s appeal to the state’s highest court.

If the Supreme Court also decides for the school districts, “There have been some comments by legislators – and even those in leadership positions – that’s kind of their cue to decide to blow up the entire school finance formula, which would be devastating,” Allison said.

Also on Monday, the board selected the firm of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture to design the new Southeast high school.

The new school will replace the current Southeast High School.

Don Landis, a leader of a coalition that fought to keep the existing Southeast High School open, questioned why the contract was not put out to bid.

Allison said that’s not required for professional services, and it made sense to hire Schaefer Johnson because the firm had done the preliminary design models for the school.

The exact amount of the contract won’t be known until the district decides the full scope of work it wants the architect to do, but it will probably be more than $1 million and less than $1.9 million, Allison said.