Education

Budget proposal would mean longer school days, shorter year for Wichita

Syed Shamiun, right, and Vivian Pham take part in an International Baccalaureate course at East High School. School district budget officials are examining a proposal that would make school days longer but shorten the academic year.
Syed Shamiun, right, and Vivian Pham take part in an International Baccalaureate course at East High School. School district budget officials are examining a proposal that would make school days longer but shorten the academic year. File photo

School days for Wichita students could be longer next year – but the school year would be shorter – if district leaders approve a plan being analyzed by budget officials.

“We’re investigating the savings that might come about through that,” said Jim Freeman, chief financial officer for Wichita schools.

“Everything is still on the table. The board has made that pretty clear to me as I develop things,” he said. “We still want to look at as much as we possibly can.”

Kansas requires public schools to provide at least 1,116 hours of instruction each year. In Wichita, the state’s largest school district, that usually translates to about 173 days of school. The current school day is seven hours, 10 minutes long, which includes lunch and other non-instructional time.

If the district extended the school day “by some minutes,” Freeman said, it could potentially reduce the overall number of days needed to reach the required hours of instruction. And that could save the district millions in transportation, utilities and other expenses.

“We’re investigating that, and we will come back to the board again with another analysis … and perhaps a recommendation,” Freeman said Tuesday. “We’ve got to come up with the dollars, but we need to know what the consequences are.”

According to Freeman’s projections, estimated cost increases for Wichita schools will be nearly $23 million next year; revenue is expected to be flat under the state’s new block grant funding system. School board members on Monday tentatively approved first-round cuts that would reduce the shortfall to about $12 million.

Phase 2 recommendations could include a proposal to lengthen the school day but shorten the year, an option Freeman says may be more feasible – and more palatable to families – than a four-day school week. A four-day week, in which schools would operate Tuesdays through Fridays but shut down on Mondays, was one of several dozen options presented to district leaders last month.

“We have to consider the impact on our community to having students home on Monday,” Freeman said, which would pose a challenge for many working parents.

Adding minutes to the school day could allow Wichita schools to start later in August or dismiss earlier in May – or both. And that would translate to significant savings in transportation, utilities and other areas.

The district spends about $200,000 a day for buses, Freeman said. It spends another $50,000 a day on air-conditioning in the late summer, when the school year now begins.

The change would require negotiation with the local teachers union over working conditions, Freeman said, but teachers’ salaries likely wouldn’t change. Cutting the school calendar would, however, reduce workdays and pay for noncontract employees, such as para-educators and substitute teachers.

One potential consequence: The well-documented “summer brain drain” could worsen. Research shows that long breaks from school lead to debilitating achievement gaps between poor children and their middle-class or affluent peers.

In Wichita, where about three-fourths of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, fewer school days could mean kids start school even further behind than usual in the fall.

Freeman said his staff will collect feedback from principals, students, parents and others about the potential impact of changing the school schedule and will return to the board later this month to present pros and cons.

“We’ll do the analysis and … we may recommend it, we may not,” Freeman said Tuesday. “If it comes up that the consequences for us are not good, then we won’t recommend it.”

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

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