Wichita school board gives tentative OK to slate of budget cuts

Metro Meridian Alternative School, at Maple and Meridian, likely will close under a budget-cutting plan given tentative approval by the Wichita school board. (May 5, 2016)
Metro Meridian Alternative School, at Maple and Meridian, likely will close under a budget-cutting plan given tentative approval by the Wichita school board. (May 5, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Wichita school board members on Monday tentatively agreed to budget cuts that will eliminate bus rides for thousands of students, change some school start times, consolidate alternative programs and increase health care costs for employees.

“This is my first experience going through this, and it’s gut-wrenching to hear students and staff struggle,” said board member Joy Eakins, fighting back tears after hearing testimony from several students, teachers and community members.

“But this is the situation we’re in, so we have to weigh these decisions.”

District officials said they also will propose lengthening the school day and shortening the school year, a plan that could save about $3 million but will need to be part of contract negotiations with the local teachers union.

If the union doesn’t want that calendar change – adding about 30 minutes to each school day but cutting the academic year by 12 to 15 days – the alternative would be eliminating elementary school librarians and secondary data leaders and outsourcing custodial management, chemicals and equipment, officials said.

Contract negotiations between the district and representatives of United Teachers of Wichita are set to start on Wednesday.

Specific cuts

Jim Freeman, chief financial officer for Wichita schools, presented more specific transportation cuts.

The board gave a tentative OK to a plan that would eliminate many hazardous-route bus rides and change start times at five schools. Only one school – officials wouldn’t name it but implied it would be either Greiffenstein/Wells or Sowers Alternative School – would move from an 8 a.m. to a 7 a.m. start under the plan.

The employee health plan would keep a no-premium option, according to a proposal, but deductibles for that plan would be $4,500 to $9,000 a year. Premiums in another plan would be zero for employees only, and up to $120 a month for a family.

Deductibles for employees would go from $850 a year to at least $1,500 and as much as $9,000 depending on the plan. Co-insurance and specialist co-pays also would increase, and employees would be required to have an in-network primary care doctor.

Additional cuts presented Monday include reorganizing Wichita’s eSchool, reducing substitute teachers and peer consultants, cutting the number of addendum days, reducing general staff travel and cutting about $37,500 in spending from the AVID program.

Heard from students

Before the meeting, several students from Metro-Meridian Alternative School demonstrated in support of the school, which likely will close as part of budget cuts. Some students also testified before the board.

Jade Strachn said she was stressed and depressed at her previous school and was grateful to discover Metro-Meridian, which she called “a place for second chances.”

“Without this school, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said, fighting back tears.

Strachn said she walks about a mile to the school at Maple and Meridian. If the district consolidates alternative programs at Chester I. Lewis Academy in northeast Wichita, she’s not sure she would be able to attend, she said.

Superintendent John Allison said staff members were looking into transportation options for Metro-Meridian students who would want to stay in the alternative program.

Catlin Clifford, a senior at Metro-Meridian, said she was offended by an earlier comment from Freeman that cutting alternative programs was a more palatable option than eliminating C-team sports because fewer students would be affected.

“Do you really think our education isn’t as important as C-team sports?” she said.

Teachers’ views

Board members also heard from several teachers who said they would be squeezed financially by pay freezes and health care costs and are frustrated emotionally by increasing workloads.

“Our teachers are in survival mode … and I am deeply troubled,” union president Steve Wentz said, reading from a collection of teachers’ comments. “Realize that teachers have had enough.”

Teachers also heard a presentation on what would happen if the Kansas Supreme Court were to shut down schools on July 1 if the court deems that the Legislature is not funding schools equitably.

Wichita, the state’s largest district, spends about $50 million a month on employees and vendors, Allison said. Besides that economic impact, there would be significant costs involved in shutting down buildings and technology systems and getting them running again, he said.

“Right now we’re working through a (shutdown) plan that we hope we don’t have to implement,” he said.

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

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