By Suzanne Perez – Kansas News Service
WICHITA, Kansas — Kansas public schools feel the pinch of enrollment losses that came with the COVID-19 pandemic — and it could mean fewer teachers, bigger classes and widespread budget cuts.
The number of students enrolled in Kansas public schools dropped by more than 15,000 since the start of the pandemic, according to state data. Some of those students may have moved out of state, but many likely turned to homeschooling or online education.
Federal COVID relief money helped districts cover shortfalls at the start. But longer-term student losses will mean less state funding.
“We will have to start to reduce the budget footprint, because the student footprint is down,” said Susan Willis, chief financial officer for the state’s largest district, in Wichita. “And it appears to be more permanently down, and not just a one-year COVID anomaly.”
Wichita’s enrollment has dropped by more than 7% over the past six years. Some of that came from declining birth rates and shifting housing patterns. But COVID worsened the problem, especially in preschool and kindergarten.
Kansas gives schools some leeway to account for abnormal years and to protect them from sudden swings in enrollment. Districts can use the higher enrollment figure from the preceding two school years to set their budgets.
But two years into the pandemic, students aren’t returning to public school in droves. So districts are starting budget talks with pared-down enrollment numbers and tightened belts.
“Declining … enrollment prevents us from waiting any longer,” said John Hutchison, deputy superintendent of Olathe public schools, during a public meeting to answer questions about budget cuts. “More money from growth isn’t really going to be coming.”
The Olathe district is looking to cut more than $28 million next school year. Officials plan to close the district’s virtual school, cut kindergarten aides and eliminate library clerks at middle schools and high schools.
In Lawrence, early budget plans included a proposal to close several schools, but that was scrapped after a public outcry. The district does plan to eliminate dozens of elementary teaching positions by combining grades in some classrooms.
Meanwhile, costs are going up for food, fuel and other supplies.
Kansas lawmakers approved a bill last week that would allow students to transfer to any public school district with the room to take them. If approved by Gov. Laura Kelly, the open enrollment measure would go into effect for the 2024-25 school year. State per-pupil funding would follow a child to whichever district they attend.
Lawmakers rejected a proposal for an additional $30 million in funding for special education. Supporters of that measure said districts have to cover excess special-education costs by shifting money from other areas of the budget.
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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