Written by Patty Decker Tuesday, 19 January 2010 19:18
Changes in school finance at the state level have been happening so quickly that area school districts barely find time to adapt to the reductions before the next wave of cuts are announced.
Shortening the number of school days, freezing salaries or cutting staff are only some of the tough choices area school districts are making to deal with the state’s ongoing economic crisis and resulting shortfalls in school finance.
The most recent hit came in November when Gov. Mark Parkinson announced the minimum basic state aid per pupil would drop to $4,012 because state revenue fell short of projections.
Overall, school districts have lost $480 per pupil since the spring of 2008 when the Kansas Supreme Court set the per-pupil amount at $4,492 to meet constitutional requirements for an adequate K-12 education.
While area schools continue to adapt, the state’s House Appropriations Committee is looking at district consolidation, efficiency audits and school finance litigation.
John Fast, superintendent of Goessel USD 411, said his district is not part of the Schools For Fair Funding, which has filed a lawsuit against the state to restore funding, but is aligned with Schools for Quality Education.
“This group is mostly for rural or (Class) 1A and 2A schools,” he said.
In the past 10 years, Fast said, there’s been a shift toward urban schools over rural schools.
SQE, he said, lobbies for low-enrollment weighting, opposes further district consolidations and gives identity, voice and exposure to rural schools.
Goessel’s school district has 255 students, which is up 12 from the previous year.
“We had been going down on enrollment for quite some time,” he said.
Even with higher enrollment, Fast said, the district could still face another possible cut in funding.
As for adjustments, the school year is already 10 days shorter for the 2009-10 year, and 10 to 12 minutes longer each day when in session.
“We have frozen salaries, cut back $14,000 on curriculum purchases and have gone from five to four bus routes,” he said.
The budget line item for teachers to purchase classroom supplies, which was between $700 and $800, was cut to $300.
Another area where money has been greatly reduced, Fast said, is with professional development points, which provides teachers with certification of learning opportunities.
The board also has postponed buying any buses, vehicles or computers.
“We are not buying anything unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he said.
Canton-Galva USD 419 is among the 74 districts that have joined Schools for Fair Funding.
“Schools for Fair Funding is about the only advocate we have for social programs,” Superintendent Bill Seidl said.
According to Mark Tallman, assistant executive director with the Kansas Association of School Boards, a number of legislators expressed strong opposition to using school district funds to file suit against the state.
But Seidl said at Canton-Galva the $2 per student price tag ($800 total) to join Schools for Fair Funding was paid from private donations.
Even with enrollment up by five students (total 375), the district has been forced to downsize.
“Last spring we cut 41?2 teaching positions, which is 10 percent of our staff,” he said. “We had six hours of physical education and now it’s three hours.”
Similar to what other area schools are doing, Seidl said nine days of school were cut, but 20 minutes were added to the regular school day, keeping instruction time about the same.
The hardest hit area was classified employees. But to soften that blow, he said, the board approved a salary increase for those remaining. The board was able to do that based on the savings in fuel costs, extra costs to feed students and utilities.
Rex Watson, superintendent of Peabody-Burns USD 398, said he is grateful to have a forward-thinking school board with members watching out for students in the district and using caution with respect to their budget.
Among those decisions, the board approved joining Schools for Fair Funding.
“We needed a spokesperson for children in our towns,” Watson said about the coalition. “The state legislature has not kept its promise of paying the $4,492 base per pupil,” he said.
To adjust for the state funding cuts, Peabody-Burns has cut 25 school days.
“We started school this year on Sept. 8 with the last day on May 14,” he said.
Other changes included going from seven bus routes to four and having three cooks instead of five. With only three cooks, the district now uses only one kitchen and transports the food to other buildings.
“It’s three blocks away and not as convenient, but we are doing what we can,” Watson said.
Similar to other districts in the area, classified positions have either been eliminated or changed, but Watson said no more jobs can be cut.
Eleven assistant coaches in junior high activities have been cut, leaving only one coach. Even though Watson has concerns about having only one coach, it’s better than losing an activity.
“Our board is adamant about not losing any programs,” he said.
One example he talked about was the bowling team.
“Even though it doesn’t affect many kids, it would be devastating to those participating,” he said.
Watson understands that school finance is complicated, but said it seems to him the legislature isn’t concerned about doing the right thing.
Declining enrollment and a $200,000 cut in the budget are major obstacles for Superintendent Lee Leiker and the Marion-Florence Board of Education.
After discussing it, the USD 408 board has decided not to join Schools for Fair Funding at this time.
Leiker said there is no specific reason why.
As for budget shortfalls, he said the district is looking ahead and being proactive.
“We are not making any major changes and only reducing staff through attrition,” he said. “Like all the school districts, we are paying close attention to state funding and what the state legislators are doing.”
Programs, transportation and personnel will all be factors when the legislature weighs with long-term decisions.
Another area of concern, expressed by many of the area school districts, involves the Marion County Special Education Cooperative.
Leiker said his board will need to assess that program in the future.
Most school districts share the goal to provide a quality education while being fiscally responsible. The Centre USD 397 Board of Education is no exception, according to information from its Jan. 11 meeting.
By consensus, the board asked its transportation director to serve as a bus driver to transport 4-year-old at-risk program students home for the rest of the year. The move was estimated to save $3,500.
Another action by the board involved discontinuation of payment for before-school supervision of students in the weight room and to continue the program with coaches’ supervision on a voluntary basis. The estimated savings was $1,420.
Several other cost-saving actions were included, ranging from limiting teachers to essential instructional materials necessary for student learning, to lowering the thermostat.
Future cost-saving ideas will continue to be reviewed by the board to include spring field trips and summer recreation programs.