Wichita Public Schools speech pathologist Jennifer Owen, who specializes in augmentative and alternative communications, high-fives Bryan Stoner after completing a communications exercise at Northeast Magnet on Aug. 25.
Wichita Public Schools speech pathologist Jennifer Owen, who specializes in augmentative and alternative communications, high-fives Bryan Stoner after completing a communications exercise at Northeast Magnet on Aug. 25. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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Jennifer Owen helps nonverbal students find their voices.

The speech pathologist for Wichita Public Schools specializes in augmentative and alternative communications, helping students with trouble speaking, reading or communicating their thoughts to do just that. She does her work with tools, often expensive ones, like tablets that help students with word and image icons.

She’s one of a small group of specialists who ensure the school district provides an equitable education to every student regardless of their needs. Professionals like Owen are also why Wichita Public Schools will likely spend more than $15,000 per student this school year.

“It takes a physical therapist to figure out the positioning,” she said of the process to help nonverbal students learn. “It takes an occupational therapist to determine whether keyboarding will be a good option. It takes the school psychologist to assess cognitive levels so we can start to take the student on a step-by-step progression so they acquire all of these skills to get them to a place where they have a close approximation to a typically developing child.”

Teams of experts like Owen are an expensive but necessary part of public schools’ mandate to serve all children, and they’re a big part of why funding public education is more than just paying teacher salaries. 

Despite ongoing adjustments to the initial $837.2 million operating budget throughout the school year as enrollment figures are finalized, school officials estimate that 86.3% of the district’s final expenditures will still be in direct student support.

Instructional costs and support expenses

At least before the pandemic, Kansas schools on average allocated about 60% of their budgets to instructional costs, according to a survey released in May by the U.S. Census. That includes items like teacher salaries, classroom supplies and other direct educational expenses. 

  • Wichita Public Schools allocated $447.8 million, or about 53.5% of its operating budget, to classroom instruction this year, said budget director Addi Lowell.
     
  • The rest is spent on everything else needed to support classroom instruction, either directly, through items such as salaries for nurses or transportation, or indirectly, like administrative costs and capital outlay.
     
  • About 86.3% of the district’s $837.2 million operating budget goes toward student or instructional support, even if not all of that spending is directly for teachers or classroom materials.
     
  • The other 13.7% funds overhead costs, like central administrative services, human resources and accounting. Wichita Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Susan Willis said that’s slightly higher than other Kansas school districts, but much of that stems from the higher-than-average number of students who need special support services in Wichita Public Schools.

“You can’t have a classroom without meals, transportation, utilities, school administration — all of those components add into classroom expense,” Willis said. “A teacher is obviously a critical role, but it’s not the only role. You have to have those other pieces.”

Why per-student spending is higher

Under Wichita Public Schools’ initial operating budget, which excludes annual, long-term expenses like capital outlay and bond payments, the district estimated it would need to spend more than $17,500 per student if a high-end enrollment projection of 48,354 students pans out.

But both the budget and enrollment figures will likely decrease over the school year, since funding is heavily dependent on enrollment. The district follows state education department guidance in initially projecting high enrollment for budget authority purposes, Willis said, then whittling both figures down as actual enrollment becomes clearer.

Even though the school year has already started, the district typically continues to enroll students through the fall. Wichita Public Schools won’t have a good estimate on enrollment until closer to the official headcount on Sept. 20, Willis said.

“The numbers we’ve been putting in for (full-time enrollment) — it’s truly been throwing a dart on the dart board, because we still don’t know the impact of COVID,” she said. “We don’t know how many students will return.”

Jennifer Owen helps families of students with communication disabilities obtain pricey, but life-changing, equipment to learn how to communicate. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Still, Wichita Public Schools’ operating expenses per student this school year will likely be significantly higher than the $14,284 per student the district spent last year. School district officials said increased COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government and early repayment of bond debt are another component of the overall bump in expenditures per student.

But in comparing that cost with the services teachers and support staff like Owen provide, Willis said public education remains “a good bargain.”

“If you’re looking at it from a tax perspective, it’s an investment,” she said. “It’s an investment in the community in the future of Wichita to have an educated population that will hopefully bring good-paying jobs into the area and ending up in having a quality place to live.”

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Garcia is an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon. He is a Report for America corps member.