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Lawrence school board hears budget deficit overview, approves natural gas bill settlement and more

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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:

Held a budget work session led by Kathy Johnson, executive director of finance. Johnson gave the board an update on the district’s current year budget shortfall and possible funding implications through the 2022-23 school year.

↪️ Context:  The district faces budget challenges due to state funding decreases, inflationary costs and an enrollment decline. Johnson walked the board through various scenarios that affect funding.

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Johnson explained that enrollment has been flat in the district and dropped significantly during the 2020-21 school year — the first full academic year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Sometimes we feel like Lawrence has grown by leaps because of all the construction. When it comes to enrollment in our schools, it’s pretty flat, or it does this seesaw business, which makes it really hard sometimes. We’re pretty transient — which we’ve talked about — and it kind of impacts how we plan and what’s going on. Unfortunately, it’s not going up as a result of what he had hoped.”

Screenshot/USD 497

Johnson said the district’s full-time equivalency (FTE) count for the 2021-22 school year will be used in the state school finance formula to determine funding for the 2022-23 school year.

That estimated count shows the district’s FTE at 10,027 students, an increase of 54 from last year, which should result in a slight funding increase from the state; however, Johnson offered a caveat: “Unfortunately, we are just not gaining our enrollment back, and so it really does make a difference. Even when base state aid goes up, it just doesn’t go up enough to offset that really dramatic drop.”

Johnson said figures are still in flux and subject to change, but the permanent and ongoing decrease in funding could fall between $2 million and $3 million for the 2022-23 school year on top of a $1.7 million deficit this school year.

Weightings for students identified by categories such as at-risk, special education, virtual and bilingual also affect the budget during the current year, Johnson said. And if enrollment doesn’t grow the next year, those weightings remain flat. Johnson explained how a separate figure — known as headcount enrollment — helps with budgeting to determine staffing numbers and thresholds for classes, per-pupil building allocations and reporting.

Johnson’s presentation also addressed building back up the district’s contingency reserve fund and the work of the nine recently formed Budget and Program Evaluation Subcommittees. The subcommittees have been charged with developing three proposals for “significant budget savings” to the Budget and Program Evaluation Committee by Dec. 13. Board members Erica Hill and Carole Cadue-Blackwood serve on the committee, which will review the proposals and ultimately provide recommendations to the board.

Meanwhile, Johnson said, the district’s Boundary Advisory Committee continues monitoring building capacity and enrollment across the district. Together, the budget and boundary committees will make recommendations to the board in an effort to balance the district’s budget.

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Kathy Johnson

The board approved a personnel report in the consent agenda that included the retirement of Johnson effective Jan. 31, 2022.

↪️ Context:  In her roles as executive director of finance and school board treasurer, Johnson prepares the district’s $181 million budget, oversees district grants and accounting for all funds, and conducts internal audits, among other duties. According to a Nov. 19 news release from the district, she has worked for the district 32 years.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis called her an “invaluable resource” to all with whom she’s worked, in the news release. “Kathy is highly regarded across Kansas for her expertise in school finance and her professionalism. With honor and integrity, she has guided the district through more than three decades of enrollment and budget fluctuations while the Kansas school finance formula was tested and retested in court.”


• Approved a confidential settlement and release agreement with Constellation NewEnergy – Gas Division, LLC.

↪️ Context: Faced with a $477,000 natural gas bill from February’s cold spell, the district asked for help from the Kansas Association of School Boards in legal negotiations with Constellation. According to a memo included in the agenda, Constellation entered into settlements with customers for billing incurred for Feb. 12-19.

The undisclosed settlement requires establishment of service with a new vendor. The board also approved a five-year purchase agreement to begin Dec. 1 with WoodRiver Energy, LLC. The contract price of $5.25 per unit will not change during the five-year term “absent a material adverse event, such as a tariff increase or decrease over 10%,” the memo states. “If unit prices drop significantly we can extend the contract at a blended rate.”

↪️ Both items passed on consent agenda 6-0. Board member Paula Smith did not attend the meeting.


• Heard a report on data-informed decision goals within the district’s strategic plan.

↪️ Context: Zachary Conrad, executive director of data and technology, gave the board an update on how the district uses data to inform its instructional decisions.

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Conrad shared with the board information about the technology platforms used by the district to gather and record data related to three categories: academic/instructional, behavior and qualitative.

Conrad used the district goal of math proficiency by eighth grade and other examples to illustrate how district staff employs root cause analysis methods to evaluate problems and identify solutions for improving outcomes.

Other notes:

Board member Shannon Kimball urged district staff to consult with traffic planners about concerns expressed by Sunflower Elementary families with the proposed expansion of the South Lawrence Trafficway and plans for a new interchange at 27th Street. During a recent site council meeting at Sunflower, Kimball said, members expressed concerns about how the proposed redesign could increase traffic problems and affect pedestrian safety near 27th Street and Inverness Drive.

The board heard from one member of the public. Jennifer Freeman, the daughter of former Lawrence High School football coach Bill Freeman, asked the school board to consider naming district athletics facilities for former coaches, including her father.

The board’s next regular meeting is at 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 13. 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 patroncommentary@usd497.org before 6 p.m. Dec. 13 to sign up to share public comments in person or remotely via WebEx.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

More coverage of Lawrence Public Schools:

August Rudisell / Lawrence Times

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