Wichita superintendent: Budget cuts will be even harder than last year

Wichita school leaders are planning for another $30 million in budget cuts, and superintendent John Allison told community members Tuesday night that it won't be easy.

"It's not a little here and there," Allison told about 60 people on a committee formed to advise the district. "We're talking programs. We're talking services. ... Aren't you glad you signed up?"

Allison spent most of the 90-minute meeting — the group's first for the new budget year — presenting information about the district's budget process and economic forecasts. In coming months, members will discuss more specific proposals.

"As I work with the board to develop our next budget, it's not going to be an easy process," Allison said. "Last year's budget was difficult. This one will be more difficult."

Wichita, the state's largest school district, with about 50,000 students, cut about $14 million from its budget last year. The district eliminated 117 positions, cut the driver's education program at high schools, closed an alternative high school and did away with school resource officers in middle schools. Additional federal funding allowed the district to hire additional bilingual and special-education teachers, Allison said, so the net loss last year was 79 positions.

Those reductions followed $34 million in cuts the district made in 2009.

"We tried to make the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible," Allison said.

Several factors are contributing to the district's third consecutive year of budget woes, including decreased property tax valuations across the state and millions of dollars of federal stimulus money that is propping up the state budget but is set to expire next year. The state is the main source of public school funding.

"That's the reality we're going to face as we have to look at the next budget," Allison told the group. "We don't know what will happen.

"Looking out and thinking there's going to be some saving grace ... is probably not going to happen. You always want to hold out hope in some way, but that's not the reality we're dealing with, and we're going to have to move forward and make plans."

The community stakeholder committee was charged Tuesday with submitting questions members would like answered about the current budget or the budget process. In January the group will meet again to get information about the school finance formula.

Members are expected to reconvene in the spring to discuss specific budget cuts.