Wichita teachers approve longer school day, shorter year

Nearly 70 percent of Wichita teachers voted to accept the proposed calendar, Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said Wednesday. (May 25, 2016)
Nearly 70 percent of Wichita teachers voted to accept the proposed calendar, Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said Wednesday. (May 25, 2016) Eagle correspondent

Wichita teachers have approved a plan to lengthen the school day and shorten the year, union officials announced Wednesday.

Of the 4,045 ballots returned to the United Teachers of Wichita office on Wednesday morning, 2,788 – nearly 70 percent – voted to accept the proposed calendar, said union president Steve Wentz.

“Everyone agrees this is not what is best for kids,” Wentz said. “Three weeks less of student contact is not what the students in (USD) 259 need.”

The calendar, proposed as a way to trim about $3 million from next year’s budget, will lengthen the school day by 30 minutes for Wichita students and shorten the school year by 15 days.

The Wichita school board will need to approve the proposed change, which it likely will do. During the board’s June 6 meeting, members are expected to approve an addendum to this year’s teacher contract noting the calendar change, as well as a new calendar for the 2016-17 school year.

Board members have said they prefer the new calendar over other cost-cutting options, such as eliminating elementary and middle school librarian positions, eliminating high school data leaders or outsourcing custodial managers.

“I know this was a decision not made lightly by our teachers,” superintendent John Allison said Wednesday afternoon. “Thankfully, this decision will allow us to move forward and finalize our budget without the loss of additional jobs or the outsourcing of services.”

Allison said the district will move forward “aggressively” to begin filling more than 200 open positions, starting with hard-to-fill jobs such as math and science teachers.

Under the new calendar, students will go to school 158 days in the 2016-17 school year instead of 173. Teachers will work 175 days instead of 190. Teacher pay will be unaffected by the changes.

District officials said savings from the longer day and shorter year would come primarily through a reduction in transportation and utility costs, as well as a reduced need for substitute teachers.

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

In coming weeks, building administrators will rework schedules to incorporate an additional half-hour into the school day.

A tentative calendar shared with union representatives showed enrollment occurring Aug. 8-10 and classes starting on Aug. 24. The tentative calendar includes a weeklong fall break around Thanksgiving and a winter break from Dec. 17 through Jan. 3. The last day of school would be May 17.

Wichita schools that start at 7 a.m. would release students at 2:40 p.m. next year instead of 2:10 p.m. Schools that start at 8 a.m. will go through 3:40 p.m., and schools that start at 9 a.m. will go through 4:40 p.m.

Wentz on Wednesday blamed Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s economic policies for the calendar change and other cuts to education. Wichita, the state’s largest district, has to trim nearly $23 million from its budget for next school year to make up for projected cost increases.

“This was the least onerous of many bad choices forced upon us by the state,” Wentz said.

Kansas requires public schools to provide at least 1,116 hours of instruction each year. In Wichita, 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.

During a discussion earlier this month to hash out specifics of the proposed calendar, union representatives raised several concerns about the longer school day, particularly for elementary school students and teachers.

Alicia Thompson, assistant superintendent for elementary schools, said a scheduling team is “working on some different options of what that would look like.”

Thompson said a new recess committee intends to recommend a 15-minute unstructured recess for elementary school students, but she couldn’t guarantee it would be part of next year’s schedule.

In recent months, several parents and others have urged Wichita school officials to give kids more recess time.

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