Wichita school board approves $18 million in cuts; more to come

Pleasant Valley Elementary School (Dec. 3, 2014)
Pleasant Valley Elementary School (Dec. 3, 2014) File photo

The Wichita school board on Wednesday voted to eliminate more than 100 district positions, close Metro-Meridian Alternative High School and end bus transportation for thousands of students, along with other cuts that will trim about $18 million from the district’s budget.

“This pains all of us,” said board president Betty Arnold. “In my heart, I wish there were something else we were able to do. … But we’re looking at a way to keep our doors open.”

Board members voted 6-0 to approve superintendent John Allison’s first three phases of budget cuts for the 2016-17 school year. Board member Sheril Logan was absent.

The district will need to trim another $5 million to make up for projected cost increases, Allison said.

“What I’m coming to is not recommending what’s best for our students or what is educationally sound but what we have to do to keep the doors open and the lights on,” Allison said.

“Unless the funding mechanism changes for schools, this is going to continue to be a yearly discussion.”

Wichita schools are projecting nearly $23 million in cost increases next year, with revenue expected to be flat under the state’s block grant funding system. The district’s current total budget is $648 million.

The budget cuts approved Wednesday include:

▪ Closing Metro-Meridian Alternative High School and consolidating alternative programs at Chester I. Lewis Academy in northeast Wichita.

▪ Eliminating many buses that transport students who live within 2.5 miles of Wichita schools. The plan cuts the number of students receiving hazardous-route rides by nearly 60 percent – from 3,711 to 1,526.

▪ Cutting more than 100 positions across the district, including about 65 teachers and others who work at alternative education programs such as Gateway, eSchool and alternative high schools. Those employees will have the option of being reassigned elsewhere, Allison said.

▪ Changing the start times at five schools: Gateway would move from 8 a.m. to 7 a.m., Greiffenstein/Wells would switch from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., and Pleasant Valley Elementary and Caldwell Elementary would switch from 9 a.m. to 8 a.m. to share buses with nearby middle schools.

▪ Reorganizing Wichita’s eSchool, Transition, Gateway and Adult Learning Center programs and moving Gateway to another location – possibly a former elementary school, Allison said.

▪ Reducing the need for substitute teachers by cutting back on professional development activities.

▪ Decreasing utility costs by resetting thermostats and restricting personal appliances, such as classroom fridges, microwaves and coffee pots.

The district still needs to trim about $5 million to balance the budget. Officials hope to save about $3 million by moving to a longer school day and shorter year, a proposal Wichita teachers will vote on next week.

Officials also have proposed changes to the employee health plan in order to shore up its health care reserves fund, possibly instituting premiums and higher deductibles.

Board members expressed frustration Wednesday and apologized to the community for having to make the cuts, a move they said was inescapable. Several directed their anger at state lawmakers, who they said are damaging public education by not funding it adequately.

“All of these budget cuts are tough. There’s nobody up here that likes it. But we need to look at the people that are doing it to us,” said board vice president Mike Rodee. “Our legislators, our government, our governor – we are the ones who are fighting to keep the schools alive, and they are fighting to close them.”

Eight people addressed the board on Wednesday, including several fighting to preserve Metro Meridian, eSchool and other alternative programs.

The superintendent’s plan will consolidate the district’s two remaining alternative high schools, likely increasing class sizes, and outsource services at adult learning centers at Towne East and Towne West. Services at the mall programs would be provided by the South Central Kansas Education Service Center, Allison said.

According to district officials, alternative programs serve about 1,000 students – including adults at learning centers – and cost about $8.5 million a year to operate. Allison compared that to West High School, which serves 1,400 students and costs less than $5 million a year from the general fund.

Ray Farag, a teacher at Metro-Boulevard, said he understands arguments that alternative schools should be more cost-effective.

But “alternative education is the emergency room for students with some serious problems and little means to get the proper care on their own,” Farag said. “The health industry knows you can’t survive without the emergency room.”

The board’s vote came as districts statewide await a ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court on education funding. Should the court order lawmakers to increase funding and legislators comply, Wichita board members could make adjustments, the superintendent said.

“I think it’s highly unlikely,” Allison said. “But if there’s a change in our revenue, absolutely the board would want to consider how they’d move forward with that.”

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

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