Wichita plans to close 6 schools. Does the district’s math add up?

The USD 259 school district has promised no layoffs and isn’t planning to sell the buildings immediately, so how will the district save $16 million?

by Maria Carter

The Wichita school district faces a difficult math problem — how to close a $42 million budget shortfall without laying off any teachers or staff, the district’s largest expense.

USD 259 is being put to the test by a state requirement to balance its budget, combined with less state funding driven by an 8.4% drop in enrollment since 2016, the end of federal COVID-relief dollars and a $1.2 billion maintenance backlog. 

The administration split the problem into three parts: $9 million from administrative cuts, $16.2 million from closing schools and $17 million from dipping into cash reserves, attrition and other cuts still under consideration.

School closings have drawn the most attention. The district plans to close six schools: Hadley Middle School, Jardine STEM and Career Explorations Academy, Clark Elementary, Park Elementary, Payne Elementary and Cleaveland Traditional College and Career Readiness Magnet Elementary.

If the school board approves the proposal at its meeting on March 4 at North High School, some 2,200 students will head to different buildings next school year.

Yet the district has no immediate plans to sell the buildings. Instead, administrators want to finish a master plan process before making any decisions. 

Also, the district has guaranteed jobs to all teachers and staff currently at those schools. 

Is saving $16 million a reasonable estimate?

Pew case study of six urban districts that closed schools found that they saved relatively little money compared to their overall budget, noting that school buildings are difficult to sell and often bring in less than anticipated. 

In Wichita’s case, the district isn’t trying to sell the buildings, so that’s not a factor in the equation. 

But the real issue on why districts fail to save much money is that school budgets are enormous. For the current school year, Wichita has a budget of $967 million, so $16 million comes to less than 2% of the overall budget. 

It’s not a huge amount, but it might be a necessary cut if you have to balance the budget. 

Phuong Nguyen-Hoang, a professor of planning and public affairs at Iowa State University who has studied school closures, said large school districts with excess capacity are perfect candidates for closing buildings.

“Consolidating school buildings may be very helpful fiscally,” Nguyen-Hoang said. 

He did a study comparing Ohio school districts that closed at least one school between 2002 and 2014 with those that closed no schools.

He found that, on average, districts closing one or more schools saved $278 per student, the equivalent of $362 today. 

If you break it up per student, the Wichita district’s estimates align with the research. 

USD 259 expects to save $343 per student districtwide.

Part of why consolidations save money, Nguyen-Hoang said, is because schools benefit from economies of scale. Larger schools with more students tend to be more efficient.

For example, an elementary school needs a school nurse, whether it has 300 students or 600 students, but it costs twice as much for the smaller school per student. Repeat this across multiple positions, and the costs pile up.

How do Wichita schools plan to save money by closing schools?

Despite not laying off teachers, the district estimates 98% of the savings come from staff salaries. 

On average, 80% of K-12 spending is shelled out for staff salaries and benefits

As part of the proposal, the district has assigned students to 15 neighborhood schools. Plus, magnet schools have room for more students.

“The teachers at those buildings that are receiving students, they only have 17 or so kids in their classroom, and we don’t have to add a teacher,” said Susan Willis, the district’s chief financial officer. “We save money.” 

Those dollars will come from positions cut from the closed schools minus any positions the district adds at schools where students transfer. 

But USD 259 has promised not to lay anyone off because it is desperate to hire teachers, cafeteria workers and other positions. 

Like many school systems nationwide, Wichita faces a teacher shortage. In January, Willis told the school board that substitutes were filling about 250 staff vacancies. Additionally, 400 people, on average, retire each year.

The 132 teachers and 190 staff members from the closed schools would help plug staffing holes across the district.

What are the costs of closing USD 259 schools?

Research is fairly reassuring about how students fare when a school closes. 

A new school is a big transition. Parents may see a few short-term blips on test scores or report cards, interestingly often before the school closes. But after a year, even that tends to work out.

In the long term, the research ranges from no difference to slightly better academic outcomes, especially when transferring to a higher-performing school

The other cost may be for the community. Many people like having a neighborhood school.

“Schools can serve as an anchor for community events or activities,” Nguyen-Hoang said, “so people treasure schools.”

When that disappears, even those without children can feel the loss, especially if the building sits vacant for several years before being sold and redeveloped.

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon