Shawnee Mission district facing its own ‘fiscal cliff,’ says superintendent

Dr. Stuart Little, the Shawnee Mission School District’s legislative lobbyist, addresses the legislative forum Thursday with Finance Director Russell Knapp and Superintendent Gene Johnson.

“There is a fiscal cliff coming in Shawnee Mission, too,” according to Shawnee Mission Superintendent Gene Johnson, not just for the federal government. Fund balances have dropped precipitously over the last few years and there is little prospect of state support coming soon in the face of the tax reduction plan that kicks in next year.

That was the rather gloomy outlook at a district legislative forum Thursday where Johnson, district lobbyist Stuart Little and finance director Russell Knapp walked through the legislative priorities and financial squeeze the district faces. The balances in available operating funds has dropped from more than $32 million in 2008 to less than $17 million this year. That is less than one month of operating expenses, which run $18 million. While the district has a total fund balance of more than $67 million, more than $37 million is restricted to capital projects or debt service and the rest is lodged in dedicated funds that are not available for general operating expenses.

The base state aid per pupil for Shawnee Mission is $25 less this school year than in 2004-2005. That has resulted in school closings, the loss of 400 employees, more than $1.2 million in new fees (including the $90 high school activity fee). Classrooms are now cleaned only every three days and the technology department only has two people who train the 4,000 district employees, Johnson said.

Reducing class sizes at the elementary level, where size guidelines have increased to save money, would be a priority if money becomes available. District paid all-day kindergarten, expanded early childhood education and pay raises are also out of reach now. Staff have received end-of-year stipends but no raises recently.

Little said the district will be looking to the legislature for a way to increase local funding. The state’s new tax plan, which eliminates income taxes on LLCs, S-Corps and sole proprietorships and reduces personal income tax rates, is projected to leave a state budget shortfall of $250 million in the 2014 fiscal year. That means little new money on horizon for schools, he said, and may trigger more cuts to education.

The cuts come in the face of changing demographics in Shawnee Mission where 37 percent of the more than 27,000 students qualify for free or reduced lunch (some schools more than 80 percent), 71 languages are spoken, 11 percent are English language learners (75 percent of those Spanish) and 308 students were identified as homeless last school year.

The full set of information slides is available here. It includes the legislative platform for the district.