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Teacher layoffs, school closings planned for cash-strapped Hickman Mills district

A budget snafu, on top of decades of declining enrollment and overspending, is forcing the Hickman Mills school district to cut $5.5 million — reductions that could include closing some schools and laying off teachers and staff, officials say.

Administrators will present a partial plan to the school board Jan. 17, explaining their first steps to reduce spending. So far, administrators say, they have come up with a plan to nickel and dime their way to saving about $3.2 million by restructuring programs, reducing transportation and cutting back on travel and supplies.

“But we still have work to do,” said Superintendent Yolanda Cargile. Administrators are studying enrollment at each building so that in February they can present the school board with the remaining proposed budget cuts, which will likely involve plans for closing some schools and consolidating or laying off teachers and staff.

“Nothing is off the table,” Cargile said. “We want answers and we want to be able to give answers. The sooner we get information out the better it is for our staff.”

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Yolanda Cargile, superintendent of the Hickman Mills school district. Jill Toyoshiba jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Several factors led to the dire budget straits.

Perhaps most notable: a mix-up on the 2017 property tax valuation of the new Cerner campus near Bannister Road and Interstate 435. The complex was constructed with incentives from the Kansas City Tax Increment Financing Commission, freeing the company from paying tax on the buildings for 23 years. Without the tax incentive, the complex would have been valued at $40 million. But in reality, it is taxed at a value of only $7 million.

But Jackson County officials mistakenly figured the district would receive revenues on the full $40 million, so Hickman Mills set a low tax levy, according to Shelley Wiltsey, district director of business and finance. She said that even after the problem was discovered and the district was allowed to raise its levy to recoup some money, revenues were still short some $600,000.

Jackson County officials did not respond this week to The Star’s questions about the property tax valuation mix-up.

Compounding that problem, for years Hickman Mills has been spending more than it was bringing in and dipping into its reserve funds, administrators told The Star. The state recommends districts keep 24 percent of the total budget in reserve, enough to cover expenses for three months. But this school year, the reserve dropped to 8.5 percent, considered dangerously low. If a district’s reserves drop to 3 percent the state takes over.

Wiltsey said that if Hickman Mills did nothing and continued at its current spending, “we would be at 3 percent in three years.”

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On top of that, the district has seen a continued drop in enrollment, meaning a drop in per-pupil dollars from the state.

“As our enrollment declines, our state funding declines,” Cargile said.

Enrollment for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade has dropped from 7,727 students in 1986 to 5,909 today, according to a recent demographic study commissioned by the district. The district lost an average of 72 students a year for the last 30 years. In some years the drop was as many as 300 students, according to the study. Under the state’s per-pupil allotment, a loss of 72 students equates to about $347,250.

School officials said they see no evidence of any halt in the decline in the near future. If the decline continues at its current rate, the study said, the district’s enrollment could drop to 4,500 students if not lower — about the size of two large high schools — in 10 years.

Another threat to district enrollment comes in the form of two public charter schools — one an all-boys college preparatory elementary-level academy, the other an elementary school. They have been proposed to open in the district sometime in the next two years, potentially pulling even more students from district classrooms.

While district leaders navigate through financial turbulence, they also have to focus on student achievement and district performance. Hickman Mills, like Kansas City Public Schools, has been working toward regaining full accreditation from the state. Both are now provisionally accredited, based on previous Annual Performance Reports, which show how public schools measure up in several areas, including student achievement, attendance and graduation rates. The state will release its latest reports in February.

“Our priority goal in all of this is to keep our priority on students,” Cargile said. “So as much as we can reduce our budget, we don’t want to reduce anything that is going to impact their learning. That is why it looks like we are nickel-and-diming.” She said school officials are looking for savings in the corners of district operations and “trying to stay as far away as we can from impacting students.”

One savings option is to expand the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics program and the project-based learning program that Hickman Mills offers in only two schools. If the district blends those programs into the curriculum at every elementary school, students would no longer need to be bused from their home schools, saving thousands in transportation costs.

The school board expects to review a preliminary budget proposal at its next meeting, 6:30 p.m. Jan. 17 in the Administration Center, 9000 Old Santa Fe Road. The public is invited to offer input at what the district is calling a “Shaping Our Future” meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 30 at Ruskin High School, 7000 E. 111 St. The board expects to vote on a final plan in February.

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