Supporters of school programs speak out

Keep student-to-teacher ratios where they are.

Keep magnets schools and alternative schools.

Keep block scheduling in high schools.

Keep counselors and social workers, drama and music.

In a pair of meetings at West and Southeast high schools Monday, Wichita parents, students, faculty and staff told school board members what they value most, as the district wrestles with the need to plan for massive cuts in next year's budget.

What they weren't asked is what they thought those cuts should be.

"I wanted to turn this in to a positive discussion, not a negative one," said superintendent John Allison. "We wanted people to think about what they really valued."

For Dena Devereaux's 14-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, continuing orchestra and choir was most important.

Lidia Carlis said her two children in high school and a third in elementary school valued physical education and athletics.

"If the school board really looks at what we think is important and considers that, this will have been productive," Carlis said.

Devereaux said she thought it was important for her daughter, an eighth-grader at Wilbur Middle School, to participate in the process.

"I think if she gets something out of it, it would be valuable," she said.

But some in the 90-minute forums were confused about where the cuts would come from if all they listed was what to keep.

"Eventually, they're going to have to start talking about what to cut," said Jerry Winkelman.

Winkelman hopes it's not the alternative schools, such as the Metro schools, where he works as a substitute teacher.

"These are the kids who may not do well in bigger schools, but they float up to the top in the smaller schools," he said.

A few hundred people filled Southeast's auditorium. Many signed in before the meeting with district employee e-mail addresses.

"We've never seen turnout like this," board vice president Connie Dietz said of the Southeast crowd.

The lists will continue, at other forums and site council meetings, to develop a list of priorities.

"If class size is important, there's a cost associated with that," Allison said. "Then we will have to look at other areas to make up for that cost."

School leaders face cuts of a quarter or more of the district's discretionary funds.

Last year's cuts and next year's are estimated to be about $45 million of the $251 million in unrestricted funds available in the Wichita budget.

Barbara Fuller, school board president, told the crowd at West that the unrestricted funds are the schools' version of take-home pay for individuals.

"We are to the point we can't take out small pieces here and there," Allison said. "We are talking about cutting programs and services."

Students showed up waving colorful signs reading "Save Music," and "I Love Strings."

"This is personal," Allison told the group. "You're being asked to make value judgments here."

Fuller said the board will begin considering proposed cuts next month. The final budget will be adopted in early August, she said.

Allison said the dilemma goes beyond the current economic crisis. He said the state has not looked ahead more than three years at a time in funding education.

The cuts being asked of schools around the state, Allison said, were outgrowths of a school funding debate with lawmakers that began in 2006.

"I hope we reach a point where we value schools as much as we do roads and bridges," Allison said. "We don't have any problem making seven- and 10-year plans to fund transportation costs. But we never look out more than three years when it comes to our schools."

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