CHEROKEE, Kan. – Frustration and sorrow have fueled recent school board meetings as USD 247 Southeast faces a $700,000 drop in state funding for the next school year. Sixteen current staff positions will not be brought back for 2017-18 as the district continues to adapt to being a smaller school district.
“Right now our district enrollment is in the middle of the pack compared to other Kansas school districts, and even when we finally level off, there will still be 100 districts smaller than us – some in our corner of the state,” Superintendent Dr. Brad Miner says. “We have a great school district and because of our size we’re able to provide a personalized experience. What we have to do is get our budget in line with our size as we transition to being a smaller district.”
“It is what it is—I get it,” one employee recently told Dr. Miner after learning their position was being eliminated.
“Yes, but it stinks,” Dr. Miner replied. “It really stinks.”
For decades the school district has seen a decline in enrollment. In 1966-67, there were 361 high school students in the district. In 2016-17, Southeast High School had 184 students.
However, the decline in enrollment has slowed and school officials expect enrollment to soon level off. Over the past several years, incoming kindergarten classes have consistently hovered around 30 students and school officials expect the district to eventually hold at around 400 K-12 students districtwide—120 of them at the high school level, making SHS a KSHSAA Class 2-A school.
“The block grant formula used old enrollment numbers, so maximum allowed funding was frozen even though enrollment declined,” says Southeast representative Chris Wilson. “This gave time to allow staff to leave on their own through retirement or to seek opportunities elsewhere, usually closer to their own hometown.”
Two years ago, only two positions were replaced when nine staff members retired or resigned. This year, five staff members took early retirement. Another 17 teachers are eligible for early retirement over the next nine years, and that does not include support staff.
“We hoped we’d be able to continue to reduce staffing naturally through attrition, but that’s not going to happen,” Wilson says.
The new school formula proposed by state legislatures for this coming school year returns to a per-pupil basis and rolls three years’ worth of enrollment decline at Southeast into a single year’s worth of drop in funding, a total of about $700,000. Just a few weeks ago, the district learned their health insurance will increase nearly 20%, close to another $100,000. That means the district has to reduce $800,000 from its budget for the upcoming 2017-18 school year.
Should legislatures choose to provide some “hold harmless” funding at the last minute this year, Dr. Miner says that might allow more natural attrition to occur as Southeast continues to work to reduce operating expenses until enrollment levels off.
Through the combination of shuffling some expenses out of the General Fund, the savings of other miscellaneous expenses, and five staff members taking early retirement and their positions not being replaced, the district freed up about $400,000. Eight support staff learned last week their positions would not be renewed.
“Administrators and teachers worked together to provide input to the board on a process to use for determining a reduction in force,” Dr. Miner says. “We worked together to find the best solution in what has been a difficult situation.”
The district is required to notify teachers of its intent to not renew by the 3rd Friday of May—the 19th this year—but Dr. Miner wanted to give everyone as much notice as possible. In a special board meeting on May 10, the school board voted their intent to not renew four teachers.
“They now have an opportunity to appeal, then the final resolutions wouldn’t take place until the next board meeting,” Dr. Miner explains. “This is our intent to notify them that they will not be renewed.”
Retiring are custodian Carolyn Hobson, Maintenance Lead Brent Imhof, and teachers Ann Cook, Debra Lindbloom and Kathy Spahn. Support staff positions not being renewed for the 2017-18 school year are Maintenance worker Kelly Bliss, Transportation Agent Ray Whitlock, Communications Agent Chris Wilson, and Paras Magarah Charlton, Paula Dey, Terri Jones, Colleen Renn, and Carla Thompson.
“At Southeast, our students come first,” Dr. Miner says, “and we will continue to invest in today’s Lancers, always with an eye towards the future, while remaining within the means provided by our elected officials.”
Pictured: This chart shows USD 247 Southeast-Cherokee enrollment numbers for past several years and projected numbers until after 2022, when the district expects enrollment to hold at just over 400 students.