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Archive for Wednesday, April 9, 2003

Dollars or sense?

April 9, 2003

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Current budget realities are forcing many school districts to be more concerned about the bottom line than about quality education.

Three stories in the B section of Tuesday's Journal-World talked about how public school officials were dealing with financial problems.

It's not a problem that's unique to Lawrence or to Kansas. Across the nation, districts are looking for ways to cut costs. In many cases, their efforts to be leaner result in decisions that often are seen as meaner to communities and individual students.

In Kansas, and across the nation, "pay-to-play" policies are becoming common. Students who participate in sports and extracurricular activities are required to pay extra fees to offset the cost of running those programs. In Lawrence, the fee is $50 per sport. A $25 fee was cited for Emporia High School. Those fees, however, pale by comparison to those in some districts, which run as high as several hundred dollars.

Another story reported a vote in Barber County to close the South Barber Middle School in Hardtner at the end of the school year. The closing of the school will be a huge blow to the tiny town just north of the Oklahoma border. The school is a key component of the local economy. It pays utility fees that are vital to the city's budget and provides about a dozen jobs to local residents.

Yet another story in the section told of several Kansas school districts that have gone to a four-day school week to reduce costs. In the current financial climate, they regularly receive inquiries from other districts considering the same move. For Weskan, a district of about 130 students, the reduction in utilities, food service and transportation costs cut the district budget by about 20 percent.

Only in the last two paragraphs of the story did anyone address the effect on the school. A high school science teacher said, "We're pretty consistent with where we're getting through the textbook."

It wasn't long ago that there was a movement to have year-round school to boost students' academic achievement; now we're talking about reducing the school week.

The problem with all of the measures being taken by public school districts is that they seem to focus almost exclusively on how to cut spending. Officials hope the cuts can be made without diminishing the district's instruction, but the idea of doing something that actually would increase classroom excellence isn't even on the table.

If planned well, efficiencies can contribute to educational excellence, but the failure last week of Lawrence and other Kansas school districts to pass bond issues to improve facilities and cut operating costs indicates voters aren't convinced that investing in new facilities can improve efficiency or instruction.

Voters in Lawrence may not believe that their school board and administrators had that goal in mind, but those who followed the bond issue process from the beginning know that it began with discussions of how to provide the best possible educational opportunity to every student in the district. Providing equal facilities across the city and saving money that could be used to beef up instruction was a basic goal.

Putting students first is what every public school district decision should be about. The current demand to squeeze budgets has shifted districts' focus in the wrong direction.

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