Education

Wichita schools CFO: Next year’s budget ‘a perfect storm of unknowns’

North High freshman Alejandra Hernandez reads during “Tower Time,” a time where the entire school spends half the period reading. District officials will discuss next year’s budget Monday night even though questions remain about state funding.
North High freshman Alejandra Hernandez reads during “Tower Time,” a time where the entire school spends half the period reading. District officials will discuss next year’s budget Monday night even though questions remain about state funding. File photo

Officials crafting the Wichita school district’s next budget say they’re setting sail into “a perfect storm of unknowns.”

The state faces a roughly $320 million shortfall, and it’s unclear whether there could be cuts to K-12 education funding before the end of this fiscal year.

The Kansas Supreme Court has yet to rule on a lawsuit challenging the adequacy of school funding.

And state lawmakers so far aren’t close to a consensus on how to distribute education dollars – whether to develop a new school finance formula or extend block grant funding another year or more.

“We have to start somewhere, so we’re going to assume flat funding,” said Susan Willis, chief financial officer for Wichita schools.

“That might be optimistic at this point, but we have to start somewhere so that’s where we’re going to begin.”

We’re going to assume flat funding. That might be optimistic at this point, but we have to start somewhere.

Susan Willis, chief financial officer for Wichita schools

On Monday, Willis will deliver a “state of the district” financial report to the Wichita school board. It will include projected cost increases for fuel, utilities and other items, which likely will translate into budget cuts.

Because the 2018 fiscal year begins July 1, board members normally set the course for their budget in February and approve a final version in August.

Willis won’t be starting from scratch. Last spring, when the district faced $22 million in cost increases with no boost in state per-pupil funding, the expansive list of possible cuts included reducing the number of school nurses, librarians and counselors, cutting athletics and fine arts programs, outsourcing custodial services and shortening the school year.

“That certainly will be a starting point as we move into this year’s discussions,” Willis said. “As we review all the cuts we’ve already made, there are certain areas we can’t go to again. So then we’ll look at that list of things that we didn’t get to.”

As we review all the cuts we’ve already made, there are certain areas we can’t go to again. So then we’ll look at that list of things that we didn’t get to.

Susan Willis, chief financial officer for Wichita schools

Last year the district’s top concern was shoring up its self-funded health insurance system, which needed a $12 million boost to its reserves to remain viable. Thanks to a teacher contract that raised premiums, deductibles and co-pays for most employees and retirees, that worry is sated for now, Willis said.

The district saved another $3 million by revising the school calendar, cutting 15 school days and lengthening each day by a half-hour. But the move has prompted widespread opposition from parents, teachers and others, who say the new schedule is bad for students and families and should be reconsidered.

“A decision will need to be made on the calendar, and that impacts what we do for next year,” Willis said. “So there are several factors at play.”

In Topeka last week, a Kansas Senate committee approved a plan that would cut $154 million from K-12 education and other agencies to balance the state’s finances this fiscal year. That could mean as much as $15 million in cuts to Wichita schools.

Senate leaders later postponed a full debate on the bill, but are expected to take up the matter again this week.

Willis said she and district leaders can’t rest easy. They still remember a mid-year funding cut in 2010 that led to the elimination of more than 100 jobs and the driver’s education program in high schools.

A mid-year funding cut in 2010 led to the elimination of more than 100 jobs and the driver’s education program in Wichita high schools.

“Any cut at this point, two-thirds through the school year, will impact our budget in a very negative way,” Willis said. “A lot of our expenditures have occurred.

“We had a plan and the plan is working, and now here we are at the eighth or ninth hour, having to make adjustments,” she said. “The later we go with a potential cut, the more difficult that becomes.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

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