Wichita schools plan millions in new spending, including raises, money to boost learning

Spending in the Wichita school district is projected to rise by more than $21 million, with the bulk of that going to wages and improving student outcomes, according to district officials.

The budget approved by the school board this week totals about $761 million for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, compared with approximately $740 million budgeted for 2018-19.

School board President Sheril Logan said it’s a relief to be able to put more money into student achievement and employee raises after years of patching budget holes while the district fought the state in court for more funding. It will be the second year of a spending increase after years of cuts.

“It’s always better to get money than it is to cut, that’s for sure,” Logan said. “It’s no fun cutting . . . We are looking at our staff and trying to get some raises, which is really what we have to do.”

In addition, she said, the extra funding allows the district to plan toward four main strategic goals: increasing graduation rates, improving third-grade reading scores, improving school safety, and expanding career and technical education for students who want to bypass college and go straight to the workforce.

About $9 million of the budget increase comes from the last chapter in the long-running Gannon school finance case, said Susan Willis, chief financial officer for the district.

In that landmark case, Wichita and three other districts sued the state for more money and the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the Legislature had failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide “suitable” funding for public education.

Last year, following lengthy resistance from Gov. Sam Brownback and conservative Republicans, a coalition of GOP moderates and Democrats in the Legislature passed a five-year, $522 million increase for schools.

Lawmakers followed that up this year with another $90 million a year for schools, after the court ruled that they hadn’t properly accounted for inflation in the first school-finance package.

The Supreme Court ruled in June that the Legislature is now providing adequate funding.

Of the $740 million that the district budgeted for 2018-19, only $679 million was actually spent, records show.

But there’s an asterisk on that.

The main difference between what the district planned to spend and what was actually spent is due to the state failing to make two of four scheduled payments for the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, which pays the pensions for school employees, Willis said.

The state used to pay that money directly to KPERS, but now it does a “touch and go” where the state sends the money to the school district and then, a minute later, the school district sends it to KPERS.

Legislators set up that system so the retirement money would be counted as state aid to schools, because they didn’t feel like they were getting enough credit for funding education.

“Normally (the KPERS payments) are supposed to come in in the budget year and they did not and so it throws everything off,” Logan said. “If they run over that quarter . . . it makes (the district budget) look wonky when really it’s nothing other than that they were late.”

Operational spending, the money that actually runs the schools year to year, is forecast to be slightly more than $668 million next year.

That works out to $13,738 per student.

The budget also plans expansion of the school district workforce and raises for every class of employees, although the exact amounts will be hammered out at the end of ongoing negotiations with the teacher’s union, Willis said.

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Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.