Face to face with the Wichita board of education

By Paul Soutar, Flint Hills Center for Public Policy.

Members of the Wichita (USD 259) Board of Education and a handful of district employees attended a “Face to Face” forum luncheon Thursday hosted by the Wichita Independent Business Association. The forums are intended as an informal opportunity for local business owners to meet and interact with government officials.

“The purpose is twofold; for them to tell us what’s going on, what’s hot and what’s happening and for our folks to be able to talk to them. We’re trying to have it fairly free-flowing,” said WIBA President Tim Witsman.

Board members and district employees spoke briefly about the size and mission of the district, budgetary challenges, and progress towards construction resulting from the 2008 bond issue.

Wichita Superintendent John Allison acknowledged that, “We’re trustees not only for the taxpayers but also for the kids and we have to make sure that the money that we do spend, that we get bang for the buck.”

School Board member Lanora Nolan said, “Not only are we accountable to every mom and dad, and not only are we accountable to the community, we’re accountable to No Child Left Behind.”

Nolan went on to give her view on the fiscal challenge facing the district. “So, when we get a budget decrease that puts us back five years in funding but the trajectory for our accountability is still on a very steep slope you understand in a hurry what the dilemma is and how to continue giving those services to our students. I can’t imagine in a business world having to put out a higher level of productivity with money on your budget that mirrored five years ago.”

Her comment caused a ripple of quiet comments among some business leaders who regularly do exactly that. It also set up the first question in which Dave Trabert, president of the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy, challenged her assertion of a budget decrease.

Current numbers for USD 259 are not available publicly but statewide base state aid per pupil, which was reduced this year from $4,400 to $4,280, is less than was provided five years ago but total state aid for FY 2010 is $6,677, or 25 percent more than was provided five years ago according to Kansas Department of Education data.

Board member Lynn Rogers interrupted the brief accountant’s debate that ensued by presenting information challenging a previous Flint Hills report on unencumbered cash balances. After passing out his material the audience got a chance to ask questions.

“The numbers question is difficult for people when they don’t know the numbers. It’s difficult to pay attention to,” said Witsman.

Several questions focused on how well public schools prepare students for the workforce. Witsman said businesses will support education but they want to see results, including basic education skills that prepare students for increasingly technical jobs.

Business owners and educators agreed that public schools must do a better job of preparing workers not just for the jobs available today but for jobs in the future.

Witsman said he thinks the forum went well. The next forum will be October 2 with state legislators from Southcentral Kansas.

Related coverage is at Wichita school district faces the public.

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