Supporters urge Wichita school board to keep custodians, nurses, librarians

Irving Elementary librarian Tracy Koppenhaver works with Jasmine Rochez during weekly summer library time. (June 17, 2015)
Irving Elementary librarian Tracy Koppenhaver works with Jasmine Rochez during weekly summer library time. (June 17, 2015) File photo

Wichita school district leaders discussed their budget again Monday after hearing from several people who support programs being considered for cuts.

School custodians and their supporters filled the North High School lecture hall, where the school board meets. Others spoke on behalf of elementary school librarians, school nurses and an International Baccalaureate program at Gordon Parks Academy.

“I’m worried about the cuts,” said Esau Freeman, business representative for the Service Employees International Union Local 513, which represents the district’s custodians.

Included on an expansive list of potential cuts is a proposal to outsource custodial services, which would eliminate 298 jobs.

A group of people wearing purple T-shirts were “people who care about keeping these good jobs, who show up every day for these good jobs,” Freeman said. “Our custodians at every school care deeply and personally about each school.”

Wendy Fjorden, a teacher at East High School and a former librarian, said she sees negative effects of the district’s move several years ago to replace high school librarians with clerks. She urged board members not to reduce or eliminate elementary school librarians.

“With no direct instruction … high school students are less equipped with much-needed research skills,” she said. “Please consider that when a librarian is cut, a teacher is being cut.”

Dave Sanford, CEO of GraceMed, which operates several school-based clinics, advocated for school nurses, calling them “the backbone of the health care system within USD 259.”

Jim Freeman, chief financial officer for the Wichita district, pinpointed estimated cost increases at $22.7 million next year – a more specific target than the range of $16 million to $30 million that guided early budget discussions.

He proposed several “phase one” cuts, including:

▪ A 10 percent reduction to nonpersonnel budgets, such as supplies.

▪ Setting thermostats districtwide to 70 degrees for heating and 76 for cooling, which could save $300,000.

▪ Eliminating non-essential personal appliances, such as mini-fridges or microwaves in classrooms, which could save another $300,000. Freeman said the district could consider charging teachers a fee if they want to keep appliances in their classrooms.

▪ Cutting transportation by $1 million, likely by eliminating some hazardous-route bus runs or changing start times at some schools.

In coming weeks, the board could look at changes to employee health insurance, such as switching to a network that requires primary care physicians and charging premiums to retirees.

Some employees have recommended lengthening the school day and shortening the school year, Freeman said. That option may be investigated further, along with a four-day school week, he said.

If they approve the phase one cuts, board members will have to find another $12 million in savings to make up for projected cost increases. Freeman said he would present more detailed recommendations in coming weeks.

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