Kansas school officials look for solutions to challenging budgets

“Districts have done a nice job of sheltering the public, for the most part. We’ve done a nice job of making it work,” said Cory Gibson, superintendent of Valley Center schools, just north of Wichita.
“Districts have done a nice job of sheltering the public, for the most part. We’ve done a nice job of making it work,” said Cory Gibson, superintendent of Valley Center schools, just north of Wichita. The Wichita Eagle

School officials across Kansas say they are cutting programs, raising fees and tightening budgets in other ways in response to an overhaul of the state’s education finance system.

In Valley Center, the grass outside school buildings will grow a little higher this year as summer maintenance positions are eliminated.

In Andover, families may write bigger checks at enrollment time.

In Wichita, Maize, Goddard and elsewhere, unfilled teaching positions could mean more crowded classrooms or fewer options for upper-level classes.

A handful of districts, including Haven, have cut their school years short by a week or more, citing budget shortfalls and an increasingly bleak outlook for state revenues.

“Districts have done a nice job of sheltering the public, for the most part. We’ve done a nice job of making it work,” said Cory Gibson, superintendent of Valley Center schools, just north of Wichita.

“We’re coming to the point where we can’t make it work anymore without people noticing.”

The Eagle recently surveyed school superintendents across Kansas to ask how they are preparing for the new school funding plan, approved by state lawmakers in March, which features flexible block grants. It includes an increase in pension funding, but contains a cut in what districts had expected in the current school year and keeps money for daily operations mostly flat for the next two years.

Supporters say block grants will free up money for the classroom by giving districts more flexibility on how to spend state funds, and they point to rising levels of overall education spending as evidence that schools should be more efficient.

“I would say it’s not only enough (funding) – in a lot of cases you can say it’s more than is necessary,” said Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank.

“While they may not be getting as much as they want, they continue to get increases. Funding will continue to set records.”

Parents paying more

Most superintendents and school finance directors who responded to an Eagle questionnaire said block grants will result in lower general operating budgets this year and next.

So they’re making cuts. And increasingly, districts are asking parents to help fill funding gaps by raising taxes, fees or both.

The Andover school board will vote Monday on a slate of fee increases that would go into effect next school year.

If the measure is approved, Andover’s enrollment fee would go from $75 to $100 per student. A transportation fee for students who live within 2.5 miles of school would more than double – from $100 to $250 a year, with a $350 maximum per family. Pay-to-play fees and band uniform rentals also would increase.

“We feel it’s important to have a balanced approach,” said Nicole Gibbs, spokeswoman for Andover schools. “We can’t just cut everything at the schools and continue to go down this hole without some kind of help from our patrons.”

Though leaders have received some pushback from families, Gibbs said, most say they understand the district’s financial situation.

“Most people say, ‘We don’t like raising fees – no one does – but we would rather pay more than lose the programming and the successful things that we have.’”

Andrew Chaney, an Andover father of three, considers himself a fiscal conservative. But he thinks the school district spends money wisely and is justified in asking for more help from families.

“It’s real, and it’s gotta come from somewhere,” Chaney said.

“Do I like paying more? No. But it helps bring it home,” he said. “If nobody is feeling any pain with what’s going on, then it’s kind of hard for the district to get the parents to really put pressure on the legislators.”

Variety of cuts

Fee increases can help the bottom line in low-poverty districts such as Andover, where most families pay full price at enrollment time.

In districts like Wichita, where more than three-fourths of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – and consequently pay reduced-rate fees or none at all – raising fees wouldn’t generate much revenue.

Officials with the state’s largest district say they plan to draw from contingency reserves and leave some positions unfilled to help cover a $7.7 million shortfall in state funding this year.

Wichita and three other districts also are challenging the block grants in court as part of their ongoing fight with the state over whether school funding is equitable and adequate under the constitution.

Other districts are looking for savings wherever they can, which translates to a wide menu of budget cuts and other strategies.

Haysville has frozen salaries and cut spending on field trips and staff development. Maize administrators have recommended dissolving the district’s police force. Douglass has consolidated bus routes and cut teaching positions.

Starting this year in Valley Center, teachers have strict limits on the number of pages they can print or photocopy on school machines. The district also has eliminated four para-educators who work with at-risk students and summer employees who maintain grounds and keep technology up to date.

Gibson, the superintendent, said he e-mailed employees earlier this year to ask for ideas to conserve spending. He added their suggestions to a master list of cost-cutting options he has been compiling since 2009.

“From there we categorized each one of those, from ‘This is directly going to hurt kids,’ to ‘This is going to hurt, but maybe we could do it,’” he said.

“We’re not doing the same things we used to do. We’ve delayed some things. We’re not doing some things we should be doing … But my greatest fear is we get into November again, and the revenues are still down,” he said.

“If we get to that point, the next level of cuts are going to be very noticeable to our patrons.”

Privatize services

Trabert, the Kansas Policy Institute president, said school districts should outsource more jobs and services, which would save millions up front and millions more in pensions later.

“School districts cause the amount of KPERS funding to increase every time they hire more people, give pay increases, or choose to have a school district employee do something that could be provided … by the private sector,” he said.

“Payroll, accounting, transportation, purchasing, food service, custodial, maintenance – the easier question is, ‘What has to be done by a government employee?’” Trabert said.

“Every report or study on school efficiency has come back and said that this district or districts in general are operating or organized inefficiently.”

Could such dramatic changes be implemented in three months – the time Kansas school districts have to develop and submit their budgets for next school year?

Trabert says yes.

“You can get these things done if you want to,” he said.

Uncertain future

Justin Henry, superintendent of Goddard schools, said the biggest challenge is not knowing whether state revenues will rebound enough to sustain education funding at current levels.

Goddard, which has seen its enrollment increase every year for the past three decades, has opted to hold off on filling more than a dozen teaching vacancies or even advertising for them.

“The name of the system – the old formula or block grants – doesn’t matter to us. What we’re watching is the continued development between revenue and expenditures,” Henry said.

“Until there is a clear plan set forth that says, ‘Yes, we have the revenues to pay for the expenditures that we’ve approved,’ we feel like we have to continue to delay as long as possible.”

Like many districts, Goddard is planning for huge jumps in health insurance rates for employees – an increase of at least 20 percent next year, Henry said. The district has not even begun teacher contract negotiations, which most years are complete before summer break.

“It’s hard to bring everyone together and have a conversation when we’re not even sure what the funding level may or may not be,” he said.

Gibson, the Valley Center superintendent, said uncertainty over school funding has taken a personal toll and likely will continue to worry teachers, administrators and district leaders.

“As a superintendent over the last several years, I have lost sleep at times because of the decisions we’re having to make,” Gibson said.

“But it wasn’t until this year that I lost sleep consecutive days. … We want to make the best experience for kids that we can, and I don’t know that the resources align to that right now.”

Contributing: The Eagle’s Beccy Tanner and Gabriella Dunn

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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