How many Wichita schools could close? Superintendent answers that and other questions

The Wichita school board has directed staff to formulate a plan for closing some elementary and middle schools at the end of the spring semester.

It’s a cost-cutting measure USD 259 hopes will save at least $16 million as Kansas’ largest school district scrambles to address a projected $42 million budget shortfall.

Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld fielded questions Tuesday about the building closure process and the district’s financial path forward.

Here’s what we know so far.

How many buildings will be closed?

“I think it’s fair to say we’re looking in the area of four to seven schools total,” said Bielefeld, who took over as superintendent in July.

The school board will have the ultimate say in how many and which buildings will be shuttered. High schools are not expected to be affected.

Enrollment trends; the school’s age, condition and location; and staffing levels will all be factored into the decision-making process.

Bielefeld said the cost savings of closing a school is “a really hard number to get at” and varies by building.

“The efficiencies of that are kind of hard to pinpoint,” he said.

How can I share my thoughts on school closures?

Everyone who lives in the district, whether or not they have children who attend Wichita schools, will receive a postcard in the mail this week asking them to take an online survey about their long-term priorities for school facilities. That will be the first chance for residents to weigh in on building closures.

A public hearing will be held in March after the staff presents recommendations about which buildings to close and why at a board meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 12 inside the North High lecture hall. A date for the public hearing has not yet been set.

Both the online survey and public hearing are being facilitated with the help of Cooperative Strategies, the Ohio-based consulting firm hired by the school board last year to assess the district’s use of buildings.

Will any teachers be laid off?

The district’s plan is to offer all teachers and staff working in affected buildings an opportunity to be reassigned to a different school.

“We believe every staff member that works for us now, we can find a spot for them,” Bielefeld said. “It may be in a different location. It may be in a different grade level, but we have enough vacancies that we need everybody.”

The district’s chief financial officer told school board members Monday that they would have to choose between closing some buildings and trimming roughly 230 teacher positions.

“The direction the board gave us last night was to investigate building closures and come back with a plan, so we don’t have a plan for teacher cuts right now,” Bielefeld said.

Why is the district facing a $42 million budget shortfall?

The projected shortfall can largely be attributed to two things — declining enrollment and the loss of federal pandemic relief money through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).

“We used that money to help support the district in the darkest days of COVID, and now we have to come up with that money,” Bielefeld said.

USD 259 received $263 million in federal funds between 2020 and 2021. That money has been spent on a wide variety of expenses, from purchasing PPE and technology for converting to online learning in the early days of the pandemic to expanding tutoring and increasing wages for teachers and other employees.

Bielefeld said input from parents and employees have informed the district’s plan to preserve expanded services for at-risk students and to keep more support staff, including counselors, social workers and paraprofessionals, in schools.

“We want to keep those positions,” Bielefeld said. “It’s not exactly that we didn’t spend the money right or we didn’t spend the money well. It’s that we’ve heard the priority is the support staff.”

Wichita enrollment has declined by nearly 9% since 2016 — a common trend in urban school districts. Because state funding is allocated on a per-pupil basis, the district can’t claim as much as it has in the past.

What other cuts should be expected?

Bielefeld said the $16 million in expected cost savings associated with closing schools fits into a bigger picture of balancing the budget by finding efficiencies.

Other cost-saving measures outlined Monday include a 5% minimum cut to non-school program budgets (finance, HR, health services, etc.), pausing the district’s administrative intern program and scaling back the number of schools that participate in the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) college readiness program.

Those cuts are expected to save another $9 million in total, leaving the district with a roughly $17 million budget hole to plug.

“There are some cash balances — not contingency funds but other cash balances that we can use in a one-time way or spread over the course of two years to help balance the budget,” Bielefeld said. “So that phase three will probably be a combination of continued ESSER initiative discussions or other trimming reductions and some of those cash balances.”

The district is expected to have a cash balance of $53.7 million at the end of the fiscal year, records show.

What about administrative cuts?

“Administrative overhead is about 1 percent of the overall budget,” Bielefeld said. “In theory, if you cut the entire 1 percent, you’d still have a lot of work to do [to balance the budget].”

Cuts are being made at the district leadership level, he said, including shifting some employees who worked at the administrative building into schools.

“It’s created more work for the district leadership team, but we felt it was important that we reduce just like everybody else would,” Bielefeld said.

“We want to try to keep the cuts away from the classroom as much as possible. That’s definitely our goal. People before places.”

But there will be no easy way to decide which school communities will have to be dismantled through building closures, he acknowledged.

“We ask principals and teachers to create a sense of belonging in their schools, and so to take that away is hugely detrimental. Not that we can’t do it successfully. I believe we can, but that is a big challenge.”