Jack Koehn has a balancing act before him.
How to make $468,000 in budget cuts without teachers or students feeling it.
“I’m not sure it can be done this time,” Koehn, USD 257 superintendent of schools, said Wednesday afternoon.
“All the cuts we’ve made to date, we’ve tried not to affect students. But now we’re down to the bone.”
The cuts come from Gov. Sam Brownback’s request in January to fund schools through “block grants” while legislators write a new school funding formula.
“Legislators will say they are are holding schools ‘harmless.’ The reality is it’s a 4 percent cut,” Koehn said. The cuts are for fiscal year 2016, beginning July 1.
Also looming is Senate Bill 71, which calls for an immediate reduction in state funding for schools, amounting to about $82,663 for USD 257.
And the promise to hold education funding level?
“All campaign rhetoric,” said Koehn glumly.
Now, “everything’s on the table,” when it comes to looking for efficiencies — and it’s not going to be pretty.
For teachers and staff it may mean reducing the district’s contribution to paying for their health insurance. Currently, the district pays 100 percent for a single employee’s health insurance premium. That may be a luxury the district can ill afford.
If a teacher retires, “I’ll have to judge whether I replace them, or see if I can have other teachers take up their responsibilities,” Koehn said.
Eliminating freshman athletics would be a savings. Many smaller school districts do without, he said. Or a certain sport could be eliminated. But that could work only if all area districts eliminate the same sport, “or else you’ll have families moving their kids to districts that can afford tennis, for example.”
Koehn is being forced to look at the value of all school personnel, teachers, l nurses, custodians, librarians, administrators — everybody. Not every school hires bona fide librarians, Koehn said. Perhaps two nurses is a luxury; or custodians’ hours could be cut back.
As for the district holding classes in Bowlus Fine Arts Center, that’s $143,000 a year. Every time the district has a performance on the Bowlus stage it pays a $600 fee. Band concerts in school gymnasiums may be an acoustical nightmare, but they’d save money.
The school could also return to a more traditional schedule of classes instead of using a block schedule, Koehn said. Currently, students alternate the days they attend certain classes. This schedule allows students to choose from a greater variety of elective classes, plus gives teachers more time for planning. It’s more expensive, however, because more teachers are needed for this format.
WITH ALL the above, Koehn will have to balance whether the savings is worth the change it will mean for both students and teachers.
Nothing happens in a vacuum.
“If we reduce the district’s contribution to health insurance premiums, that’s essentially a cut in pay,” he said. “What’s the impact that will make on our culture as being a good place to work?” Koehn asked rhetorically.
That the district is faced with such drastic cuts at a time the nation’s economy is rebounding is frustrating.
“We could understand this during the recession,” said Koehn, who has served as a school administrator since 2006 and endured three rounds of cuts during the 2008 financial crisis.
“But these cuts are self-inflicted,” because of the legislature’s massive income tax plan.
He wonders aloud. “What will it take for people to get outraged enough to say this isn’t right?”
LEGISLATORS VIEW the carry-over funds many districts have as “excess cash,” Koehn said.
Most districts try to build up cash reserves to apply to building or maintenance projects, “so we don’t have to come begging from taxpayers on a frequent basis.
“We’ve also learned we don’t have a reliable funding partner in the State of Kansas.”
An example: Educating special education students costs more because they require different kinds of resources. State statute mandates the state pay 93 percent of those additional costs. Today, the state pays 76 percent of the extra costs.
“Nobody enforces the law,” Koehn said simply. And who picks up the tab? The local school district.