Budget Decisions: Prioritizing People

Posted by Kelly Bielefeld on 1/26/2024

This week we shared an update with the board of education about our budget situation for next year. It was hard news to hear.

 

Our vision is to be the premier district of choice for the region, to create schools that are connected and create a sense of community and belonging for every student. The idea that we might lose some of our school communities creates anxious feelings and emotions for everyone across the district. It has some asking, “What has led us to this extremely difficult decision?”

 

A piece of the puzzle that is important to understand when it comes to our situation is the COVID relief money, often referred to as ESSER (Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief). ESSER was an unprecedented influx of money that was approved by the Trump and Biden administrations to help schools through the pandemic and after. The money helped to provide PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), support facilities changes for safety, learning loss, staff recruitment and retention, and behavioral support in the aftermath of a traumatic time for students across the country.

 

Now that those funds have been exhausted, we have decisions to make as to how we can move forward. In November and December, we gathered large amounts of feedback from staff and from the community — thousands of staff and community members processed information in listening circles in schools and through site councils. More than 500 group responses were submitted. Over and over we have heard that the support staff, mainly counselors, social workers, and school psychologists, are critical positions that we need to keep even though ESSER money can’t continue to fund them.

 

But the main point of data that we hope to address is unfilled teaching positions across the district. We know that the most important investment that we make is investing in our people. Our board of education committed to this in 2023 by approving a two-year contract for staff that included no increase to insurance premiums and a 4.5-5% raise for all staff in both 2023-24 and 2024-25. This was approved by both United Teachers of Wichita and Service Employees International Union. With a starting salary above $50,000 per year for a new teacher, we hoped our vacancy issue would improve. Despite this investment, we still see vacancies across the district, especially in hard-to-fill positions like math and science.

 

We want great staff, we want great support staff, and we know our people are vitally important. We also know that enrollment has declined around 8.5% over the past 8 years and we haven’t made any adjustments to our school landscape to match that reality. Enrollment declines, while small, are projected to continue over the next few years.

 

We value our staff and know that our priority is our people.

 

This leaves us with choices to make. As we look to balance the 24-25 budget, our board of education is choosing to continue to invest in people, not spread resources so thinly, and make difficult decisions about closing buildings so that we can provide a high-quality teacher in every classroom.

 

District leaders will be ready to propose a list of building closures at the February 12th board of education meeting. They will share details about impacted staff and families: which buildings are impacted, where students will be reassigned, what options families have, and where staff will go to find information about their options.

 

Despite the difficult decisions we have before us, and the resulting challenges of those decisions, we are committed to do what is best, not only for our students, but for our staff as well. We believe that retaining and relocating staff is ultimately a better option than retaining buildings and dismissing staff.

Our district has faced challenges before, and I am confident that we will emerge from our present challenges together, strong, and focused on educating our wonderful students.