Archive for Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Districts face tough choices

Funding uncertainties force worst-case planning

April 24, 2002

There's a difference between being in limbo and playing limbo.

Just ask Jean Rush, McLouth school superintendent. Like other Kansas school superintendents, she's searching for the least-painful ways her district can cut spending if the Legislature takes a hefty slice out of school funding.

Her choices include not filling vacated faculty positions, cutting back on supplies and utilities, and taking a close look at athletic programs and elective classes. A drastic resort, she said, would be to consider a four-day school week, which would mean a longer school day, but allow cutbacks in costs for food preparation, transportation and utilities.

"It's getting to the point where I'm becoming very concerned about offering a quality education," Rush said. "How far can we cut until that's truly jeopardized."

There's a relationship between educational costs and quality, she said.

"I think that's a key issue that Kansans have to come to answer," Rush said. "How do we maintain the quality of education and how low do we want to go."

With Kansas legislators still unraveling their way out of a projected $700 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1, school districts are scrutinizing their own budgets.

The Tonganoxie school district has already begun trimming expenses. Richard Erickson, Tonganoxie superintendent, said the district last year completed the fifth and final $158,000 payment for its transportation fleet. To cut costs, rather than ordering 19 new school buses this year as planned, the district only ordered six, which will save about $87,000.

Also, he said, the district will reduce the 2002-2003 $150,000 technology budget by about $40,000.

To generate revenue, Erickson said he will recommend that the board increase the local option budget, a locally generated tax, from the 2001-2002 rate of 21.1 percent of the general fund budget, to 23 percent. That, he said, would mean an additional $100,000 for the district.

Erickson said he hopes these will be sufficient.

"If we have to reduce programs, we're going to reduce programs that don't affect kids," Erickson said. "I'm adamantly opposed to cutting staff and cutting direct services to kids."

Earlier this month, Basehor-Linwood superintendent Cal Cormack sent a letter to district patrons in which he detailed possible budget cuts. These included the elimination of three teaching positions, cutting $40,000 from high school athletics, $35,000 from middle school athletics, and eliminating three classified positions. These and other cuts detailed would slash the district's budget by $908,400.

"That's the worst-case scenario," Cormack said. "We certainly hope that isn't going to happen, and now I'm confident that that isn't going to happen, but what will actually occur we don't know yet."

Cormack predicts that the state will fund schools at the same level as this year.

"Most of those who are observing the process believe that both the House and Senate are wanting to hold school's harmless," he said. "If that's the case, then we won't have to take these drastic steps."

Any delay in the announcement of school funding delays a district's year-end planning, Cormack said.

"We have to get a budget in place to know what we will do with salaries," Cormack said. "That whole process of negotiating for salaries has to be put on hold until we get a better idea of what we can anticipate in terms of revenue."

Even though Cormack said he believes it's likely the state will maintain funding at the previous year's level, he remains cautious.

"Until the Legislature has actually acted, we don't yet know how we will be impacted," Cormack said. "We'll keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best."

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