Wichita school board gets first detailed look at proposed budget

As Wichita school board members got their first detailed look at a proposed budget Monday, a few words kept popping up: Scary. Frightening. Tight. Really tight.

The $648 million budget for 2015-16 – about $35 million less than last year’s budget and $4 million less than last year’s expenditures – cuts some programs and expenses, raises property taxes and freezes teacher pay.

“There isn’t a whole lot, other than people, that we can start cutting after this,” said board member Sheril Logan. “And that scares me.”

Board members voted Monday to publish the budget and set a public hearing and final vote for Aug. 24.

If approved, the district’s mill levy would increase by 2.86 mills, about $33 a year on a house that is valued at $100,000. The proposed increase includes a one-year, 0.42-mill special assessment tax to finance about $1 million worth of infrastructure around the new Southeast High School.

The budget presumes another enrollment increase for Wichita, though it won’t translate to additional state funding. It also presumes increased costs for transportation, utilities, special education, food service and other categories.

Jim Freeman, the district’s chief financial officer, directed schools to cut at least 10 percent of nonpersonnel expenses. Among those cuts, which total about $6.5 million districtwide, was the elimination of parent involvement workers at elementary schools.

“That’s concerning to me, because we know that the No. 1 indicator for student success, far above anything we control, is the involvement of parents in their (children’s) education,” said board member Joy Eakins.

“We can say whatever we want about equipment and mileage and services, and people will blow those things off. But this hits the classroom. This hits students.”

Freeman noted that about $1.2 million of the projected aid for Wichita schools may not come through if assessed property valuations don’t meet projections. If that happens, he said, the district will have no other choice than to make midyear cuts.

“It’s going to be a very tight year,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I can say that.”

Earlier in the meeting, former state school board member Walt Chappell urged board members to “increase productivity” among teachers and staff by increasing student-teacher ratios. He cited state data that showed that over the past 11 years, Wichita’s enrollment increased by about 4 percent, while the number of employees increased 16.7 percent.

“Please find ways to reduce the cost of instruction before you consider any increase in taxes,” he said. “This community cannot stand an additional tax increase.”

Board president Betty Arnold asked Chappell to stay for the budget presentation and discussion, then asked Wichita superintendent John Allison to address several of Chappell’s points.

Allison said overall student-teacher ratios can be misleading because certain classes, such as special education and some technical education classes, are much smaller than others.

“It’s not just as simple as taking A divided by B and coming up with an assumption,” he said.

In other business Monday, school board members approved another $1.1 million in expenses for the new Southeast High School.

The new school’s $60 million price tag does not include furnishings, lockers, science lab supplies, technology or many other things necessary for the high school to open, Allison told board members recently.

On Monday, the board voted to approve contracts with four vendors for food service equipment, gymnasium bleachers, gym scoreboards and stage curtains and rigging. The items will be paid for out of the district’s capital outlay fund.

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