At the January board meeting I provided a summary of the Kansas Legislative K-12 Student Success Interim Committee report. In this report, Kansas public education was criticized for academic performance and inefficient spending. Their criticism is not new; it’s a weekly narrative I hear from state government officials and political groups.
Having been in education for several decades, I’ve grown some pretty thick skin and can move past the negative attacks. Our government opponents’ appreciation and respect for public education are different than mine. I accept them and agree to disagree. However, when I heard Governor Brownback claim school districts’ use of money is “inefficient, if not immoral,” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Absurd? Uninformed? Short-sided? I was speechless. My thick skin shed several layers. Never in 30 years of education have I gone to work with the goal of being inefficient or immoral.
I concede education is an easy target because it’s expensive and subjective. With the data of your choice, you can cast the entire lot with a generalization and spin it. Usually, when you speak of schools in general, most agree there are problems and room for significant improvement. However, ask your friends about their children’s schools. Are they failing? No, the majority will defend their local schools to the bitter end; it’s the other schools that are failing. If this weren’t true, bring up the C-words: closing and consolidation.
After Governor Brownback’s declaration that school districts’ use of money is “inefficient, if not immoral,” in his State of the State speech, I must share the rest of the story or at least another side to the story. In my nine years with the district, every expenditure has been checked and evaluated for savings. I can’t think of a time when efficiency wasn’t considered.
Since 2010-11, this district has closed buildings, cut positions, shared administrators, reduced the number of school days, reduced the professional learning budget, bought supplies in bulk, cut overtime and extended contracts, frozen salaries, delayed transportation purchases and building updates. Through it all, we tried to protect kids and classrooms. The adults could sacrifice, but we didn’t want our kids to lose counselors, teachers, technology, and enrichment opportunities like field trips, extra para help, after-school programs, Science Club, Robotics, and preschool.
Unfortunately, the largest part of the budget is personnel. Certainly, eliminating people can make the largest cuts, yet people are the most valuable to our mission. In 2009-10, Dr. Davis cut expenditures by $311,000. Last year I cut $240,00 because of mid-year state aid reductions and fear of further state aid cuts in 2016. Yes, there is a toll. The district librarians and foreign language teacher made the ultimate sacrifices: early retirement. This year PHS English teachers are taking on more class preps with more students. It’s inevitable that with further reductions, more sacrifices will be made that affect the classroom.
As for the recommendations by the Legislative K-12 Student Success Committee (SSC). Guess what? We have already implemented two of their ideas prior to their report.
SSC: Outsourcing services to the private sector
USD 382: Outsourced food services to OPAA! in 2014
SSC: Outsource to regional service centers for services or share with other districts
USD 382: We shared a superintendent, curriculum director, and payroll clerk with the Cunningham School District and currently share Curriculum Director David Schmidt’s workweek and salary with PCC. Besides curriculum, his duties include preschool principal and junior class College/Career Counselor.
In light of everything we have done in our district and how hard teachers have worked to provide Pratt kids top-notch academics and outstanding enrichment programs, I find it disheartening for the Kansas governor to accuse us of being “inefficient and immoral.”
Our job is to prepare the future workforce for this county and state. We all take our jobs very seriously and want to do the very best for Pratt kids. Superintendents across the state have told state officials we want to work with them, not against them. We want to collaborate and continue to make our students and Kansas successful.
Pratt County’s best exports are our students. A large percentage of students never return to Pratt County. Our loss of successful, educated, trained employees and taxpayers now benefit communities across Kansas and the nation. Their success is a result of their families, schools, churches, youth programs— the entire Pratt community. Students who leave us and those who stay should make you proud!
USD 382 cannot afford to short-change students. This state needs successful, law-abiding taxpayers to maintain and improve the quality of life for all Kansans; however, it won’t happen without an educated, trained workforce. The Board of Education and all employees are committed to this mission and will work hard every day, despite the lack of moral or financial support from state government.
Suzan Patton is the superintendent for USD 382.