Rural district’s sacrifice illustrates depth of Kansas schools’ budget woes

? While Kansas lawmakers spent the week wrangling over questions of how to balance the budget with the least amount of tax increase possible, an event in Pratt County demonstrated how decisions made in the Statehouse affect people throughout the state.

During a school board meeting Wednesday night in the tiny Skyline school district in Pratt County, superintendent Mike Sanders announced he would resign at the end of this year, just to save the district money.

“The board and I talked about it,” he said during a phone interview Thursday. “We actually had worked out a deal for me to go part-time next year, and I was going to do some consulting work in January.”

But Sanders said the more he and the board looked at the district’s finances, the more it became apparent that the district could not afford a full-time superintendent with a salary of $81,000 a year.

He said the district had already decided not to replace the guidance counselor who resigned because her family is moving. Other full-time positions, including a physical education teacher, were cut to part-time.

“Eighteen people in our district have been reassigned, had their hours reduced or they’re losing their jobs,” Sanders said. “We saved about $477,000 in that process. But we’ve been running really on fumes the last three years.”

Sanders traced the district’s financial problems to the start of the Great Recession in the 2008-2009 school year. That’s when then-Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, made the first in a series of deep cuts in per-pupil funding for schools.

But Sanders, who said he is a Republican, said the situation has not improved as the economy has recovered, and per-pupil funding has not been restored to pre-recession levels.

Meanwhile, he said, his district actually has gained students. But it also is experiencing significant cost increases, including an expected $30,000 increase in employee health insurance benefits.

“It just hasn’t gotten any better,” Sanders said.

Earlier in the session, lawmakers passed a bill repealing the old per-pupil funding formula and replacing it with block grants that effectively freeze school district general fund budgets at their current levels for the next two years.

Sanders said the Skyline district already has used up its reserve funds. So if other costs go up in the next two years, such as the price of diesel fuel for buses or food prices for school meals, the district has to absorb those costs by making cuts elsewhere.

And Sanders said he and the Skyline school board have little confidence the state won’t cut education funding further in the next couple of years.

“We’re planning for more cuts,” he said. “We know legislators are wanting to stay away from K-12, but they don’t have the revenues to balance the budget. In the state general fund, 52 percent is for K-12. So where else are they going to get it? They can’t ignore the elephant in the room.”

“The ironic thing to me is, the governor and all the people that support him say this is all about job growth,” Sanders said. “Well, I’m a Kansan. My music teacher and counselor are Kansans. They (the Legislature) have to face the issue: This is what it’s going to look like for us if this isn’t fixed.”

In the meantime, he said, one of the district’s building principals will take on the additional duties of superintendent next year.