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 a retention payment program for nearly 1,700 Lawrence Public Schools staff members.
↪️ Context: The district will implement a plan to use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, known as ESSER, for incentive pay to retain employees. The agenda packet includes a memo that states, “COVID-19 has significantly impacted the district’s ability to retain staff. Research shows that retention of staff plays an important role in student success.”
The plan will provide payments three times for the 2021-2022 school year and next. A $500 payment would be awarded in October, March and June the first year for a total of $1,500 in potential earnings. The second year, payouts in the same amounts would arrive in October, March and May.
Superintendent Anthony Lewis said survey feedback from a recent ThoughtExchange about COVID-19 relief funds supported retention of staff. The plan will apply to classified hourly staff, certified staff and teachers, and administrators.
Samrie Devin, executive director of human resources, said the retention incentive program would help building climates and staff morale.
Kathy Johnson, executive director of finance, emphasized to the board that especially during the COVID-19 pandemic retaining teachers was important for students.
“We need to keep the same staff in front of our kids, that consistent quality of education that they need on a daily basis,” Johnson said.
Non-contracted employees such as substitutes, tutors, and seasonal on-call and temporary workers, as well as Rule-10 coaches, will not be eligible for the incentives. The plan will cost nearly $5.4 million, including employer-related costs and is subject to state approval.
↪️ Passed 6-0. Board member Paula Smith did not attend the meeting.
• Conducted budget hearings and gave final approval to the 2021-2022 school year’s budget.
↪️ Context: The board proposed a slight decrease of .242 mills from the 2020 tax rate, bringing the levy to 52.880 mills. This year’s budget totals $201 million in spending, compared to $159 million last year. Significant increases in special revenue such as food service, special education and federal funds from COVID-19 pandemic relief grants have helped boost that total.
Due to the Legislature’s addition of the revenue neutral rate hearing requirements, additional steps were added to the budget process. The new law requires governing bodies — in this case, the school board — to inform taxpayers and invite public input before approving a budget that includes a tax increase related to assessed property valuations or property tax increases.
Public commentary during the first budget hearing included a district staff member telling the board a number of vacancies remain in the district because of persistent problems in the district that have been brought to the board’s attention previously through emails. The staff member blamed salary disparities in the district on misplaced priorities and said it was time for “people to start stepping up or people start stepping down.”
↪️ Passed, 6-0, in four separate votes.
• Discussed the board’s financial priorities for the 2021-2022 school year and gave direction for the Budget and Program Evaluation Committee’s work during the upcoming year.
↪️ Context: According to a memo in the agenda packet, the board established a budget and program evaluation committee in 2018 to provide input for the evaluation of budget decisions. The committee has 25 representatives from across the district. The recent decline in enrollment and enrollment weightings has created budget challenges, including near extinction of cash reserves and deficit spending similar to challenges the board faced in 2018, according to the memo.
Board member Kelly Jones said the contract negotiations committee has been discussing increasing compensation for classified staff to an hourly wage near $15 and increasing salaries for teachers. Board member GR Gordon-Ross said those wage negotiations are a priority, in addition to building back contingency reserves.
Board member Shannon Kimball said her priorities were broadly aligning spending with funding while addressing pay issues and returning contingency reserve funds to adequate levels. Kimball said the district needs to look “holistically” at its program offerings and work in tandem with the district’s Boundary Advisory Committee to ensure that resources in buildings are being spent as efficiently as possible while supporting the needs of students. She said “difficult conversations” are coming.
“I believe the board has to take into consideration the overall health of the entire district … this is a conversation about the overall health of our organization, and in order to do that, we really are going to have to dig into some things that maybe in the past would have been seen as off the table,” Kimball said.
• Approved additional funding for costs related to the Aug. 3 school board primary election.
↪️ Context: Board member Shannon Kimball raised questions about the Douglas County Clerk’s office’s request to pay for the school district’s primary election in August. The total cost attributed to the election is just more than $34,000 and will put a dent in the district’s already low contingency reserve fund. She asked administrators to look into the district’s obligation for future primary elections.
↪️ Passed, 6-0, on consent agenda.
• Requested Lawrence High School staff resubmit a fundraiser request over equity and Title IX concerns.
↪️ Context: Kimball requested the board pull the LHS boys basketball fundraiser from the consent agenda for discussion. In a memo in the agenda packet, LHS Principal Jessica Bassett and Athletic Director Mike Gillman had asked the board to approve selling pieces of the recently replaced gymnasium floor as a fundraiser for the boys basketball team.
Lewis said administration would look into how the district could redistribute funds from the sale in a more equitable way across multiple teams, but the sale had already transpired. Kimball introduced a new motion that requested the school come back with a revised proposal in compliance with the district’s equity policies and federal Title IX requirements.
↪️ Passed 6-0.
• The board recognized the Lawrence Horizon Award Honorees. Winner of the elementary award is Sarah Edmonds, New York Elementary School fourth grade teacher. Secondary winner is Mary Krieger, sixth grade science teacher at West Middle School. The award is given to second-year teachers. Lewis said they “rose to the challenge and stood out” in their first-year of teaching, which took place during a pandemic. Each teacher received a $250 gift card from Truity Credit Union. They move on to the state-level competition, sponsored by the Kansas Department of Education.
• Lewis said a new COVID-19 quarantine report would be added to the district’s website and updated on Wednesdays. Today’s chart shows a total of 309 individuals in quarantine across the district. Lewis and a number of board members thanked healthcare staff and school nurses for their hard work.
• Lewis provided the board a brief overview of the recent updates to school isolation and quarantine measures from Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. Kimball asked if the district would participate in COVID-19 testing plans available through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment that allow students and staff who have been exposed to a positive COVID-19 case without symptoms to “test out” of quarantine and remain in the classroom. Lewis said the district was researching options and how pandemic relief funds could support additional staffing needs that might arise from participating in KDHE’s Kansas K-12 Stay Positive Test Negative Initiative.
Jones asked how the district is handling instruction for those who are quarantined at home and wondered how boundaries could be “pushed” in terms of limits set by the Legislature on remote learning. Jones expressed concerns about students’ learning being impeded by quarantines, particularly multiple quarantines. Lewis said the district’s leadership team recognizes those concerns and is exploring options for “face time” with quarantined students. Jones also asked whether the district might consider vaccinations as a condition for employment.
Kimball said she had received public feedback on contract tracing and privacy concerns. She asked that the district attempt to exercise its full extent of flexibility during contact tracing while still obeying privacy laws related to health and public safety.
• The district’s ThoughtExchange survey for input on how the district should use ESSER III funds will close on Wednesday, Sept. 15
• A superintendent’s advisory council is being formed to hear input from various stakeholders across the district.
• A brief recess was taken during a disruption. After public commentary, yelling could be heard on the meeting’s livestream. Meeting attendees reported Lawrence police officers were present during part of the meeting.
The board’s next regular meeting is at 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 27. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org before 6 p.m. Sept. 27 to sign up to share public comments in person or remotely via WebEx.
— Tricia Masenthin (she/her), reporter, can be reached via email at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com.