Wichita schools budget would cut tax rate slightly, increase spending in most areas

Wichita school board members decided Monday to ask state officials for the authority to raise local tax rates.
Wichita school board members decided Monday to ask state officials for the authority to raise local tax rates. File photo

A boost in state aid to Wichita schools will mean a longer school year, higher pay for teachers and substitutes, new credit-recovery centers at high schools, more preschool classrooms and enhanced support for children with special needs, a district official said Monday.

The Wichita school board got its first look at a proposed budget for the 2018-19 school year, which shows spending increases in most areas and would lower the district’s property tax mill levy by a fraction.

“This budget was built around our strategic plan,” said Susan Willis, chief financial officer for Wichita schools. Wichita is the state’s largest district, with about 50,400 students.

Willis showed board members a “draft-form” overview of the district’s proposed $686 million budget. The board plans to hold a public hearing and adopt the budget on Aug. 27.

The budget is about $43 million higher than last year’s final budget. Willis said much of that — about $25 million — will go toward employee retirement, bond and interest payments, capital outlay projects and other areas that aren’t flexible for the district.

“It’s certainly not money we have to spend on wages or student needs or any of those things,” she said.

The remainder of the increase — about $18 million — would go toward a proposed pay raise for Wichita teachers and several other programs, Willis said.

Substitute teachers in Wichita will make $5 more per day, a district spokeswoman said; long-term substitutes will make $7 more per day.

Other proposed increases include about a dozen additional teachers and para-educators, two grant writers, enhanced wireless technology, 15 more school days and a new K-6 school for students struggling with behavior issues.

The proposed budget would lower the district’s mill levy by a fraction — .118 mills. But that shouldn’t mean less revenue for the district, Willis said, because property valuations have been “on the uptick” by about 2.5 percent a year.

The proposed budget also would add staffing for Parents as Teachers, a program geared toward parents with children younger than 3. The program pairs parents and their young children with parent educators who guide children’s development through home visits, play groups, developmental screenings and other activities.

“With our emphasis on working with at-risk kids, this Parents as Teachers thing is just . . . a winner. It really does help kids succeed in school,” said board member Ernestine Krehbiel.

“We’ve got tremendous numbers of low-income families that aren’t able to access that or have not accessed it because we just had to cut back so much.”