Lawrence school board approves tentative budget with tax rate decrease, sets public hearings

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The Lawrence school board met Monday at district offices. Here are items from our preview and what happened with them, plus some additional notes.

Key points — the board:

Approved the annual mill levies and maximum budget expenditures for publication. The board also set a schedule for public budget hearings.

↪️  Context: The board established a proposed tax rate of 52.880 mills, which is a decrease of .242 mills from the 2020 tax rate of 53.122 mills. The board approved a maximum budget authority of $172,885,000. (Catch up on the background explanation in this meeting preview.)


Here’s a link to the budget presentation slides the board reviewed Monday night.

↪️ What it means to you:

The district’s mill levy for 2020 was 53.122 mills, which means the owner of a home valued at $200,000 would pay about $1,176 in taxes to the district. Assuming the general levy remains the same, with the mill rate approved by the board for 2021, taxes on the same home paid to the district would go down to $1,170.24, if the home’s assessed value didn’t change.

Budgets are published higher than anticipated spending to allow for flexibility in program changes, Johnson said. Line item details within published, approved budgets can change with board decisions, but the maximum budgets and mill levies can’t be exceeded. Johnson told the board it’s just one of the things that makes school finance so confusing.

Public budget hearings are scheduled for 6 p.m. and 6:05 p.m. Monday, Sept. 13, at district offices.

• Heard a budget overview from Executive Director of Finance Kathy Johnson.

↪️ Context: The district is facing challenges from rising costs, inflation and ongoing reductions in school funding due to an enrollment loss of almost 700 students last school year. Johnson said the district budget estimates 50% of those students would return in the 2021-2022 school year.

The previous school and budget year ended with $4.5 million less spent than planned, Johnson said. Spending was frozen. Spring job positions were not filled because funding wasn’t available, and projects were paused.

Johnson told the board the district’s contingency reserves have decreased to levels that are very low — about $800,000. Johnson said the district needs to purposefully plan to increase the fund closer to $5 million. “This fund is what you rely on for emergencies,” Johnson said. For perspective, a month’s worth of district payroll is more than $6 million.

“It’s very complicated,” Johnson said, referring to school finance. Johnson said every piece of the budget is tied back to the strategic plan, and she explained to the board which funds could be transferred or carried over. The line items approved in the budget are based on allocation decisions made by the board at various times. COVID-19 has put the district in a reactive and survival mode, Johnson said. There are no opportunities for new funding, so reallocations are necessary.

“Resources will continue to be a challenge and the (budget) committee is going to continue to evaluate it,” Johnson said. “We really don’t know what next year will look like.”

Enrollment count numbers Sept. 20 will help see a clearer funding picture for the future.

Approved the student handbook framework for elementary, middle school and high school levels. 

↪️  Context: Executive Director of Inclusion, Engagement and Belonging Cynthia Johnson told the board the framework will give students and their families an understanding of the general rules and guidelines in Lawrence Public Schools. Johnson said sections were added for the district’s equity policy, mental health and Native American Student Services.

↪️  Passed, 6-0.

Other notes:

• PAL-CWA Interim President Hannah Ross Allison told the board during public commentary that classified staff and the union are not giving up on earning a living wage, despite the district’s budget challenges. Contract negotiations between the union and the board continue after the union rejected an offer for a 2-cent wage increase.

“Our bargaining team understands the realities of the budget we just heard. We have worked diligently this summer to grasp the school funding formula and we also know that we have 34 administrators who make over $100,000 while hundreds of our classified staff do not make enough money to live on. We appreciate the offer of a two-cents-per-hour raise, but we know our district can do better … We just need you to help us find the money.”

• Executive Director of Communications Julie Boyle urged all district families to complete the new Household Economic Survey, found here. The survey replaces the former free and reduced meal application. Although meals will be free for all students this school year, Boyle said the new survey will be used to determine student fee waivers and school funding. Confidential surveys should be completed by Sept. 15 and will generate state and federal money for schools, in addition to helping ease financial burdens for families who qualify for aid.

• Superintendent Anthony Lewis did not attend the meeting. Chief Academic Officer Patrick Kelly gave a superintendent report in Lewis’ absence. Kelly said 100 new teachers started with the district last week, and all teachers are attending professional development this week. Kelly mentioned the upcoming 2021 Fall Convocation, which is Aug. 16 at the Lied Center. Social media posts on the district’s Facebook page indicate shuttle transportation for teachers and staff will be provided at no cost by First Student Transportation, and the Lied Center space has been comped.

• Board President Erica Hill thanked those who voted in the primary election Aug. 3 for three school board seats. Six of twelve candidates advance to the general election Nov. 2. Here are the unofficial results in order of candidates’ finishes from highest votes to lowest: Kelly Jones, Kay Emerson, GR Gordon-Ross,  Andrew Nussbaum, Nate Morsches, Elizabeth Stephens, Melissa Clissold, Markus Logan, Myranda Zarlengo, Travis Tozer, Douglas Redding and Leticia A. Gradington.

With a tie on election night for sixth place, it is still uncertain whether Stephens or Clissold will take the sixth spot on the general election ballot. The most recent numbers on the Douglas County clerk’s website show Stephens with a seven-vote lead. County Clerk Jamie Shew said there are about 100 provisional ballots to be counted at the election canvass Aug. 19. Voter turnout in the primary was 10.1% with just more than 6,500 voters participating.

The board’s next regular meeting is at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 23. Find the board meeting agenda and related documents here. Watch the live board meeting via livestream here or tune in to Midco Channel 26.

Email before 6 p.m. Aug. 23 to sign up to share public comments in person or remotely via WebEx.

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