Districts will stay open through end of year, despite rumors

    The tough economic climate has put a kink in several aspects of the place we call home, but not the rumor mill. 
    Rumors have been swirling about like a wintry breeze that the Wellington School District will be shutting down operations come March.  Superintendent of USD 353 in Wellington, Rick Weiss said those rumors are not true.
    "There's a lot of speculation," Weiss said. "There are a lot of things going on — but no."
    By law, Wellington and every school district in Kansas must meet a set number of hours for grades kindergarten through 11 to be counted as a full school year. High school seniors have a slightly less amount of hours to complete to graduate. 
    Kansas State Statue 72-1106, section B states kindergartners must complete 465 school hours. Grades one through 11 must meet 1,116 school hours. For the seniors, they must have no less than 1,086 hours in school to graduate.
    So right now, Wellington closing its doors is not on the radar.
    "As far as closing down anything that's just a rumor," said Benny Ybarra, USD 353 Board of Education President. "I think people are starting to realize something's going to get impacted... I think everyone's becoming more aware of what the impact might be, but that's just a strict rumor, as far as the schools closing down early."
    Ybarra said he believes the community is paying more attention to the cautions laid out at Board of Education meetings over the last several months.
    "I understand completely, rumors are all over the state about various things that are going to happen and what people are going to do," Weiss said. "There will be new ideas, thoughts, things mentioned and discussed that probably have never been thought of before."
    A school is not going to shut down over night. There are several drastic steps that would take place before the option of closing the doors is even considered.
    Every school district is trying everything they can to save money in a way that doesn't directly affect students. With more cuts forecasted, some districts have considered extending school day hours and going to a four-day week. After school programs would be on the cutting block. Then something no one wants to resort to: layoffs.
    Schools in Sumner County and the surrounding area are already adjusting their school day schedule. USD 463 in Udall school is extending the day with 15 extra minutes in order to shorten the school year.
    "We decided to keep some jobs and save some money, we would shorten our school year by two weeks,” said Udall Superintendent Kim Stephens.
    Stephens said the district is still going to meet state hour requirements with its plan. A four-day schedule is being considered at Udall, but that is only in discussion stages.
    USD 463 has not discussed consolidation at this point, but South Haven and Caldwell have. South Haven already shares programs with Caldwell.
    "We presently share an industrial arts teacher, an art teacher and a librarian," said John Showman, USD 509 South Haven superintendent. "So we've looked at those options."
    Showman said the district is holding community meetings about the consolidation possibility. Consolidating would lock in funding for the districts for five years,
"We would maintain what funding we would have when we went into that for five years," Showman explained.  "That would get us through for five years hopefully past the difficult budget time, but there's no guarantee of that either." USD 509 has talked about going to a four-day week but the district has not made a decision on that. Showman said the only other option would be letting staff members go.
    "Over the next three to four years we're looking at some difficult budget issues," Showman said. "You're really looking at districts having to reduce expenditures and that means jobs."
    With the number of elementary schools in Wellington, consolidation might seem like a logical thing to do. The Wellington Board of Education President said that isn't the best option for the district.
    "If we consolidate any elementary school into the other we still have to have those same teachers," Ybarra said.
    When the number of students in a school increases, the number of teachers must follow suit.
    "You're better off putting more hours in your days than you would trying to do that," Yabarra added. 
    In Argonia, there are a lot of rumors about consolidation. Superintendent Julie Dolley said the district is considering all options, but Argonia is not actively seeking to consolidate.
    "Our whole intent is to get our people interested in contacting legislators and trying to get the message out that education needs to be adequately funded," Dolley said. "Yes, we are going to make some budget cuts this year. Then we're talking about further cuts next year."
    Next year's cuts are on the agenda for the Monday’s Argonia Board of Education Meeting, which the community is invited to attend. 
    On the USD 359 web page, Dolley pointed out in a note that "most people do not realize that with just a one-cent sales tax increase, over $300 million can be generated" for the school system. Contact information for state legislators is also featured in the note composed by the Argonia Superintendent.
    Rick Weiss also said  calls, e-mails, and letters from parents to the legislature will help tremendously.
    At a community meeting last Monday in Argonia, the issues were presented to the community and Superintendent Dolley has faith townspeople will contact legislators
    "Our patrons are very supportive of our school," Dolley said. "I thnk they'll do what ever it takes to keep us going as long as we can."
    If any schools were to see consolidation as their best option it would take the issue to the community. South Haven's Showman said both communities would have to vote yes for consolidation to take place.
    "So there's several steps along the way for that" Showman said. "This is a little bit unique for consolidation talk because our discussions have been in reference to upcoming short falls, not necessarily reductions in enrollment which is normally where you see consolidation discussion."
    Wellington Schools will remain open through May. The number of hours set forth by the state must be completed. South Haven Superintendent John Showman puts the harsh economic times into perspective.
    "Other industries and other professions are experiencing that too," Showman said. "But the state funding is really creating some problems."
    Sumner County's State Representative is Vince Wetta. Country residents are free to contact him at 785-296-7665, his email is vince.wetta@house.ks.gov. Constituents may also email Wetta at vmwetta@sutv.com to be added to his mailing list.
    Sen. Steve Abrams can be reached at 785-296-7381, his e-mail address is Steve.Abrams@senate.ks.gov.
    More information can be found at www.kslegislature.org.