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Proposals to help balance Lawrence school district budget include school closures, reductions of positions

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The public got its first glimpse of the details behind more than two dozen budget-trimming ideas for the Lawrence school district Wednesday afternoon.

Before advancing cost-saving proposals to the Lawrence school board, the school district’s Budget and Program Evaluation Committee gave them another look at district offices. School closures, reduction of coaching positions and the sale of district property all appeared on the draft.

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Kathy Johnson, executive director of finance, provided an overview of the funding impact from the district’s decline in enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Combined with enrollment weightings that won’t be determined until next year, the district faces a budget deficit for the 2022-23 school year between $3.25 million and $3.85 million.

Some proposals contain a lot of moving parts, and one decision for a single school could affect other schools and other proposals, Johnson said. “So it’s really important that you can’t cherry pick right in the middle and not look holistically at how that impacts the entire system of the district.”

An example, she offered, would be the reorganization of English Language Learners sites. A proposal to move the Hillcrest Elementary cluster site to Sunset Hill Elementary has an estimated budget savings of $787,000, but would essentially amount to a school closing.

Hypotheticals at secondary schools, the documents showed, suggest closing a middle school could yield a savings of $967,000. At high schools, one scenario proposed saving $100,000 by rebranding the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) college-readiness program and another combining low-enrollment classes across the two high schools at a savings of $195,000.

Calling nothing written in stone and “all just proposals,” Johnson said the purpose of the process was to bring the information together for discussion.

As calls to reduce administrator salaries and positions have increased this fall, several scenarios showed proposed cuts and consolidation of administrators, including assistant principal and athletic director positions at a savings of $56,000. Higher-impact savings – estimated at $307,000 – would eliminate one each of the following positions: curriculum specialist, director and executive director.

Special education savings estimates show the proposal offered with the highest impact weighing in at a savings of $106,000 for the restructuring of the district’s gifted program. And eliminating one of two positions that will both be vacant at the end of 2021 could result in a savings of $35,000.

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Some proposals suggested less potential impact on the surface. If enrollment were to remain flat and the district maintained its current class thresholds in elementary classrooms, Johnson said, approximately $855,000 might be saved through the elimination of 14 full-time equivalent positions, likely through attrition.

The suggestions went both ways. A possibility advanced by the Facilities and Operations Subcommittee proffered the sale of district property at Holcom Park or the former Wakarusa Valley Elementary building, generating an estimated $650,000 of income.

About two dozen committee members mulled the proposals for 45 minutes. Board President Erica Hill and Vice President Shannon Kimball participated. Incoming board member Kay Emerson observed from a chair in an area designated for guests. A news release earlier in the day from district spokesperson Julie Boyle said the meeting wouldn’t be livestreamed due “to the small-group discussions planned.”

Committee members looked over each of nine subcommittee’s proposals. They were placed in groups in advance of the meeting, and Johnson said they were working on topics outside their subcommittee assignments in order to encourage cross conversation among the categories.

Johnson called it “a first blush through” of the proposals, inviting committee members to submit questions and notes they had at the end of the session for follow-up. “We’d like to get some reaction to the proposals so that we can help the board with the next step of their review, and really then there will be additional questions and things that we come back to navigate through.”

The next step in the process takes place at 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 20 at district offices. Hill has called a special board meeting and budget work session to discuss the scenarios. Find a list of the Budget and Program Evaluation Committee proposals at this link.

Johnson said the board needs to “have lots of discussion” and there would be no decisions during the special meeting. “There’s too much information for them.”

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Earlier Wednesday, Superintendent Anthony Lewis told reporters in an email that attracting new families to the district — and thereby increasing enrollment — could offer a long-term solution for the district’s budget challenges. A proposal to add a Montessori program at New York Elementary is being considered.

“While no decision or recommendation has been made, the district is exploring the possibility of whether offering a free, public Montessori educational program at New York Elementary, the district’s lowest enrolled school, could increase enrollment,” Lewis said.

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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.

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