Wichita school district seeks input on budget priorities

As Wichita school leaders brace for more cuts to state aid, they're asking community members to help set budget priorities once again.

A stakeholder committee of about 60 staff, parents and business representatives will meet Tuesday evening to hear preliminary budget projections and set a course for gathering input from the public.

"Last year's budget was tough. This one's going to be more difficult," said Superintendent John Allison.

Wichita, the state's largest school district with roughly 50,000 students, cut about $14 million from its budget last year. The district eliminated 117 positions, cut the driver's education program in high schools, closed Metro-Midtown Alternative High School, consolidated bus routes, suspended the Grow Your Own Teacher program and did away with school resource officers at middle schools.

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

The district's 2010-11 budget is about $10 million higher than the previous year's. Officials said the increase is due mainly to the district paying off bond interest and principal payments. Money that the district classifies as unrestricted — funds the district can spend without strings attached — has decreased as state aid to schools has been cut.

Even if funding were to stay at current levels, Allison said, the district would have to make cuts to cover increasing costs, including fuel, retirement, insurance and teaching English-language learners and special-education students.

But experts say funding is likely to drop. Despite a new 1 percent increase in the state sales tax, economists project a gap of as much as $500 million in next year's state budget. The budget year begins July 1.

"It was hard this past year," said school board president Connie Dietz. "But depending on what the extent (of state-aid cuts) is, it could be devastating."

At Tuesday's meeting, which is open to the public, the committee will get "a first look at what the budget reality looks like and what our plans are for moving forward," Allison said.

Another unknown is whether Kansas lawmakers will find ways to replace about $200 million in federal funds that expire in June. Absent those dollars, schools could see state aid reduced by as much as $300 per child.

Last spring the district hosted a series of meetings during which parents and teachers identified which programs and services were most important to them.

Items were separated into elementary, middle and high school lists and included such things as class size, athletics, fine arts, all-day kindergarten, transportation, technology, magnet schools and professional development.

"It can't be done with cut-a-little-here and cut-a-little there," Allison said at the time. "We're talking services, entire programs... chunks of staffing."

Dietz said she worries anew about potential cuts to popular programs such as athletics and fine arts, which she says "are not extracurricular.

"I personally consider them as important as math and science and everything else. We know the tremendous impact fine arts and athletics has on kids' lives and the skills they learn.... So I'm very fearful about that," she said.

But budget predictions look grim, Dietz said, and she expects that whatever cuts the district makes will be painful.

"We're preparing for the worst and hoping for the best," she said. "Whatever we have to do... it's likely to hit close to the classroom. It won't be easy, and the public is going to know about it."