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Area schools battle state funding crisis

Staff writer

Kansas has decided to delay payment to public schools for another month. The state has been late with payments several months last year and the scarcity of state funds has had an adverse effect on the five Marion County school districts.

Over the last three years, USD 398 has taken the most drastic measures to stay economically viable. They have cut 10 days off the end of their school year, six jobs, and three bus routes, USD 398 Superintendent Rex Watson said. USD 398 also changed from a block schedule to seven classes per day. Peabody is also attempting to withdraw from the Marion County Special Education Cooperative to avoid paying approximately $168,000 to the co-op.

USD 398 has had to drastically change its school structure. The district eliminated a separate middle school system, thus teachers picked up more sections of their subjects.

“Two science teachers split the load,” Watson said. “No one teaches seventh grade and seniors. One teaches seventh through tenth and another teaches juniors and seniors.”

The Peabody-Burns district also had to cut a few sections of classes in its elementary school.

USD 398 is not alone.

The Hillsboro school district has already taken money out of its cash reserves two months in a row to pay its salaries and bills. If the state’s current behavior continues, USD 410 will have to take $51,000 out of its reserves, depleting the reserves to about $599,000, to make all of its yearly payments.

Over the last three years, USD 410 has also cut back. Former USD 410 Superintendent Doug Huxman said that some non-tenured teachers were let go two years ago: some in elementary, one in physical education, and one technology teacher.

Last year, USD 410 also cut back 11 positions by attrition — employees who retired were not replaced. Personnel cuts put more strain on remaining teachers and personnel. Current USD 410 Superintendent Steve Noble said that Hillsboro elementary was reduced to two sections at the second, third, fourth, and fifth grade levels.

But, it’s not only teachers. The district is running fewer bus routes and is one person down in each of the three school’s kitchens.

Marion County’s three other school districts haven’t had to make such drastic changes.

USD 411, which is the only school district in the county that has gained students, has cut its school year by 10 days and has eliminated one bus route. The Goessel has also held a firm grip on its purse strings. One example, which USD 411 Superintendent John Fast laments, is a reduction in the reading curriculum budget.

“It affects kids in the classroom,” Fast said. “We’re not able to stay up to date on reading materials. Teachers are having to rely on more of their own resources.”

Fast said that if a teacher wants to do a special project they might have to pay for materials like scissors and poster board out of their own pocket.

Sherri Sells teaches gifted students — students in the top percent of their classes — at USD 398, USD 408, and USD 411 school districts. She said that she has about 30 to 40 minutes per month with each of her students, spanning all 12 grade levels, in a one-on-one setting to work on special projects. She has had to improvise to obtain some materials: she took two strong magnets out of old televisions.

“Teachers are so overwhelmed with all the stuff they have to do,” Sells said. “It is frustrating when you have to buy your own supplies all the time to get what you need.”

USD 408 and USD 397 have taken similar belt tightening measures. USD 397 Superintendent Jerri Kimble said that the district is trying to go paperless wherever possible and not approving any purchases unless it is necessary for student learning. But, neither district has had to make any personnel changes to stay afloat.

“We don’t have any immediate concerns,” USD 408 Superintendent Lee Leiker said.

If the state continues to withhold funds, most districts fear future layoffs. District superintendents said that at least 60 percent of their operating costs come from salaries. USD 410 could pay its salaries for only two months with more than $650,000 in cash reserves.

“We know that any of these cuts affect student learning,” Kimble said. “These are tough decisions that no one wants to make,”

The school districts can’t just use their cash reserves to supplement their spending because they need that money to get through a July through September drought in outside founding. In the summer, schools still have to pay all their bills.

“What (some Kansas legislators) are asking us to do is put ourselves into bankruptcy,” Fast said.

The five school districts can look to federal funding but the money attainable through grants is limited. USD 397 and USD 410 obtain 6 percent of their funding from federal grants, but for specific purposes.

“(The districts) get money from the federal government that is very targeted,” said Linda Ogden Marion County Community and Schools Director who applies for all the federal grants for Marion County schools. “It has to be specific on these narrow guidelines.”

With the Kansas economy not expecting to turnaround anytime soon, area schools may continue to struggle.

“Teachers beg, borrow, and steal to find whatever resources you can,” Sells said. “If our basic needs aren’t being met, how can we teach these higher learning things.”

Last modified Jan. 14, 2010

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