Wichita school district seeks budget advice

The superintendent of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, has created a “Community Stakeholder Budget Committee” to “learn about the district’s budget process and to provide feedback on possible cuts,” according to a news story on the district’s website.

According to Superintendent John Allison, the district may have to cut as much as $30 million from its budget, which, according to him, can’t be done easily and would “[impact] programs, schools, student-teacher ratios, and staff positions.”

According to the district’s news release, cuts have already been made: “In spring of 2010, the district made $14 million in budget cuts.” And these are not the only cuts made recently: “These cuts are in addition to the $34 million in cuts that the district made in 2009.” A Wichita Eagle news story repeated these numbers.

The problem is that these numbers don’t conform to reality. Wichita school spending, whether measured in total or on a per-student basis, has been increasing every year for a long time.

Here are spending figures for the Wichita school district from the Kansas State Department of Education

                   Expenditures
School Year    Total      Per-student
2000-2001   $342,754,035    $7,532
2001-2002   $383,680,515    $8,393
2002-2003   $391,651,615    $8,604
2003-2004   $421,616,834    $9,278
2004-2005   $427,914,830    $9,457
2005-2006   $477,837,441   $10,545
2006-2007   $544,384,275   $12,035
2007-2008   $548,198,385   $12,133
2008-2009   $563,837,269   $12,370
2009-2010   $579,003,042   $12,526

In chart form, the spending looks like this:

Wichita school district spendingWichita school district spending. Total spending, in blue, is on the left axis. Per-student spending, in red, is on the right axis.

How the district can claim that budgets have been cut when spending has been increasing is beyond the imagination and understanding of most people — until you enter the upside-down world of government bureaucracies. In this world, bureaucrats decide how much they’d like to spend next year. If they don’t get to spend that much, they call it a budget cut, even though spending may increase. John Stossel explains:

When normal people hear about a budget cut, we assume the amount of money to be spent is less than the previous year’s allocation. But that’s not what bureaucrats mean. “They are not comparing current year spending to the previous year’s spending,” Coulson writes. “What they’re doing is comparing the approved current year budget to the budget that they initially dreamed about having.” So if a district got more money than last year but less than it asked for, the administrators consider it a cut.

Astonishingly, these purported cuts have come during years when fund balances in the Wichita school district have been increasing, indicating that the district is not spending all the funds it receives.

For example, from 2008 to 2010, a period of two years, the district’s contingency fund increased its carryover balance from $12,659,616 to $16,477,282. A fund labeled “Special Reserve” increased its carryover balance from $22,096,045 to $46,616,968 over the same period. (A quick look at the district’s comprehensive annual financial report gives no clue as to the purpose of this fund.)

School spending advocates argue that these carryover funds are necessary for various reasons, and they’re correct. Most businesses or organizations need a cushion in the bank to pay bills before revenue comes in. But the only way the balances in these funds can grow — year after year as they have — is that schools simply aren’t spending all the money they’ve been given.

Yet with increasing fund balances, the district has laid off teachers and shut down programs.

Furthermore, the district is continuing its ambitious expansion program, funded by the bond issue passed in 2008. While the buildings and upgrades are paid for by the bond funds and not by yearly operating funds, these new buildings and facilities will cause the district to experience significant increases in annual operating costs. In particular, the district wants to decrease class size. That’s a very expensive proposition, and research does not back up its effectiveness. But it increases the power of school administrators and bureaucrats.

According to the Wichita Eagle story, the community stakeholder committee is to prepare questions they’d like answered. Here are several that could be asked.

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