Education

Schools react to Wichita district’s budget-cutting options

Wichita schools CFO: "What's going to hurt us the least."

Wichita school district’s chief financial officer Jim Freeman briefed media on Tuesday, reviewing options presented on Monday night. USD 259 faces cost increases of up to $30 million next school year and no additional state funding. (March 22, 201
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Wichita school district’s chief financial officer Jim Freeman briefed media on Tuesday, reviewing options presented on Monday night. USD 259 faces cost increases of up to $30 million next school year and no additional state funding. (March 22, 201

The mood at McLean Elementary School was somber Tuesday as teachers and others mulled a list of potential budget cuts that could affect the north Wichita school or even close its doors.

“It’s a lot to take in,” said Cindy Graves, principal at McLean, a science and technology magnet with about 260 students and a dozen classroom teachers.

“My teachers have a good spirit about it, which I was so grateful for this morning,” Graves said. “It was, ‘We’ll figure it out.’ They know it’s more than just a job. It’s educating kids, and that’s so crucial.”

Wichita school board members got their first look Monday at an expansive list of potential cuts aimed at closing a budget gap that could range from $16 million to $30 million.

The scale of potential cuts runs the gamut, from tweaking thermostats to eliminating whole programs.

Options include reducing the number of school nurses, librarians and counselors; eliminating all-day kindergarten; moving to a four-day school week; cutting transportation; privatizing custodial services; doing away with International Baccalaureate, AVID and JROTC programs; and possibly, eventually closing some of the district’s smallest elementary schools.

Critics accused district leaders of playing to public sympathy by putting beloved programs on the chopping block and ignoring other potential cost savings.

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, took to social media late Monday, challenging the district to privatize more services and cut administrative costs.

Wichita school officials say district-level administration has decreased by about 20 percent since 2008. But Trabert pointed to statistics that show the number of building-level administrators and other managers – principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches and curriculum specialists – has increased over the past several years.

“What this district and others often do is target the things that are going to enrage parents, that are going to garner sympathy,” Trabert said.

“They don’t look internally to see, ‘Where are we spending money that’s the farthest away from our students and our teachers?’ … What they have to do is manage their money. They have a lot of options, and that’s a good thing.”

Wichita school district’s chief financial officer Jim Freeman briefed media on Tuesday, reviewing options presented on Monday night. USD 259 faces cost increases of up to $30 million next school year and no additional state funding. (March 22, 201

Jim Freeman, chief financial officer for Wichita schools, said the list of potential cuts includes downtown and building-level administrators. Among them: high school athletic directors, instructional coaches, data leaders, assessment coordinators and positions in the department of curriculum and instruction.

This week Wichita principals will meet with teachers to review the list of cuts and discuss potential consequences for students both short- and long-term. They will relay that information to district officials, who plan to also collect input and feedback from the public.

When the school board meets Monday, Freeman said, members could rule out some items on the list, add others or request more information.

The scale of potential cuts runs the gamut, from tweaking thermostats to eliminating whole programs.

Prohibiting employees from having mini-refrigerators, microwaves or coffee pots could trim $200,000 from utility bills, Freeman said. Outsourcing the district’s custodial services – nearly 300 employees – could save $1.5 million a year. Eliminating pre-kindergarten for students who don’t qualify for special education could cut $4.2 million.

Now everything is truly on the table, and it’s disheartening.

Cara Ledy, principal at South High School

But everything comes at a cost, said Cara Ledy, principal at South High School.

Programs such as JROTC and AVID – a college-preparatory program for at-risk students – have reaped huge rewards for Wichita students in the form of scholarships and leadership skills, Ledy said. An IB diploma program at East High and a pre-IB curriculum at Robinson Middle School attract families to the district or keep them there, she said.

“Everything affects everybody,” Ledy said. “I’m a secondary principal, but you’d better believe I want to keep all-day kindergarten. Those kids are coming to middle school and high school someday, and we want them to be ready.”

Superintendent John Allison said the list of 38 potential cuts is “a starting point for a very difficult conversation that will unfold over the next several months,” as board members and others try to trim millions from the district’s $436 million general fund budget.

“We’re now reaching a point where there’s not much left to take a look at that won’t have a direct impact on our classrooms,” Allison said.

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

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