Schools stop hiring, travel, some purchases

Running on $34 million less than expected in state funding, the Wichita school district has ordered a freeze on hiring, travel, and furniture and equipment purchases.

The news went out to district employees late Monday in an e-mail from Superintendent John Allison.

"As you know, the spring semester will bring many significant challenges to our district, not the least of which is how we will respond to continued cuts in our current year's operating budget and prepare for potentially devastating cuts in the 2010-11 school year," Allison wrote.

Allison was not available for comment Tuesday, but his e-mail outlined four measures to attempt to save costs:

* Hiring — No one will be hired to fill current or future vacant positions, with possible exceptions for "essential" positions.

* Travel — No out-of-state employee travel will be approved, regardless of funding source, unless it has already been booked or is required as a condition of a grant.

* Furniture and equipment — No furniture or equipment will be purchased, except "essential classroom items."

* Overtime — All overtime will have to be approved in advance and requests will be "scrutinized carefully."

Any exceptions to the freezes would have to be approved by the Superintendent's Advisory Council, a team of top-level administrators.

"These will probably be some of the easiest cuts," said school board member Lynn Rogers, who expects worse to come. "We're trying to stay as far away from the classroom as possible (with budget cuts), but when a teacher leaves and you can't replace that teacher, it is going to affect the students."

According to district records, USD 259 will receive at least $34 million less than it expected because of a series of budget cuts through the year, including:

* February — The Legislature cut $33 per student, about $2.2 million for the district.

* May — The Legislature cut $120 per student, almost $8 million for the district.

* July — The governor cut $62 per student, about $4.1 million for the district; the Legislature cut the district's special education and capital outlays by a combined $5.7 million.

* November — The governor cut $206 per student, $14.2 million to the district.

The district is expecting to lose another $4 million once its enrollment audit is finalized.

In addition to direct cuts, the district also did not receive about $10.3 million it would have expected because the state didn't pay districts for increased enrollment, said spokeswoman Susan Arensman.

This year, the district added nearly 900 students, for a total enrollment of 50,042, she said.

At the same time, the per-student funding dropped from $4,492 to $4,012, the level it was at in 2006 and the lowest the state can go without jeopardizing federal economic stimulus funding.

"The base is now lower than it was before the Mountoy decision," Rogers said, referring to a 2005 state Supreme Court ruling that ordered the Legislature to increase money for education to meet a constitutional mandate to provide suitable schools.

The cuts to date represent about 5 percent of the overall budget of $620 million.

However, Rogers said, most of the overall budget is in designated funds, such as federal grants and bond payments.

As a result, almost all the cuts have to come from the district's general fund, which is about $251 million, or 40 percent of the overall budget, he said.

The cuts so far this year represent about a 13 percent decrease in the general fund.

At the same time, Rogers said, schools are scrambling to improve standardized test scores to meet requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"We don't get any relief from rising costs, rising student achievement goals and unfunded mandates, but we're expected to do it with less money," he said.