No good options for school cuts

Some legislative leaders are recognizing the need to raise taxes to avoid devastating budget cuts to schools and social services, with Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, having announced Friday that he would push a $300 million tax plan. But given that many other lawmakers are still stubbornly opposed to any tax increase, school districts are wise to prepare for the worst.

USD 259 fears that it might have to cut $25 million from next fiscal year’s budget, which would be on top of the $34 million the district cut this year. It held public forums last week to get input on what people value in local schools and where the district might cut.

School officials explained that cutting that much money is so difficult because the majority of the district’s budget is restricted for specific purposes. Only 40.5 percent of its budget, or about $251 million, is unrestricted.

Within that budget slice, 80.9 percent goes for salaries and benefits of employees. And it is nearly impossible to find $25 million in cuts from the remaining 19 percent of the unrestricted budget.

For example, if the district cut all its athletic programs, it would save only $2 million, school board president Barb Fuller said. And it’s unwise to eliminate all extracurricular activities or special programs, as these help enrich students’ education and connect them to school, which helps lower dropout rates.

Thus the district would need to eliminate some personnel to make such a large budget cut. But that could result in larger class sizes and fewer paraprofessionals, which could undermine efforts to raise student achievement and meet the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The district also might need to renegotiate next year’s contract with the teachers union. To its credit, the union agreed to a contract for this school year and next that froze salaries and cut one teacher in-service day. But a salary cut also might be needed.

The district increased teacher salaries by 10.25 percent for the 2006-07 school year, in part because it added four more days of teacher inservice. The district and the union might consider eliminating three more days of in-service training — which many teachers consider a waste of time anyway — in exchange for a small pay reduction. For example, a 1 percent pay cut would save the district about $3.3 million.

That would be a painful decision, given that teachers work hard and deserve more pay. On the other hand, the district approved previous pay increases — including a 6.5 percent increase in 2005-06 and a 4 percent increase in 2007-08 — based on promised funding from the Legislature. The state has reneged on that court-ordered agreement.

Other cutting options might include going to a four-day school week, as some rural districts have done, eliminating or charging for all-day kindergarten, and closing alternative schools. But there are significant drawbacks to those options, too.

No doubt there are some changes the district could make to save some money without hurting student achievement, including cutting some administrative positions. But they don’t add up to anything near $25 million.

Cutting that much money — or even a third as much — could cause great harm.