Lawrence school board vets ideas to fill multimillion-dollar budget gap

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Many questions and few answers came out of the Lawrence school board’s review of potential cost-savings ideas Monday during a special meeting to discuss the district’s budget deficit.

In their examination of the two dozen potential cost-trimming proposals put forth by the district’s Budget Program Evaluation Committee and its nine subcommittees, board members focused on the viability of the proposals and how they might affect students and staff.

Vice President Shannon Kimball asked if the process was intended as a long-term restructuring to make the district more efficient in funding its strategic plan’s priorities or a short-term Band-Aid.

Kimball, a longtime board member, cited previous staffing cuts to save money that ended up with administration coming back later with requests to restore them. “What I really want to look for in these proposals are the things we can do to restructure the way our district operates so that we can put money toward the priorities that we have.”

Board member Paula Smith said she felt the information in the proposals was “a lot of information to process in a very short amount of time.” Smith said she wanted to make sure the board made decisions that were the least harmful for students, especially for students in special education. “I feel like we’re making these decisions on the assumption that all students are engaged in school and learning at the same level.”

Board President Erica Hill told board members the budget work session was the “first of many conversations.” 

“It’s going to take looking at this over and over, making sure every perspective is represented while we’re having these discussions. This is challenging, very challenging,” Hill said.

Board members asked about Title IX issues and whether the cost-savings proposals submitted had undergone an equity analysis. Superintendent Anthony Lewis pointed out the considerations had been viewed with some equity context protocol, including whether the potential decisions could produce further disparities.

The board also questioned whether it actually needed to fill a much bigger budget hole than $3.85 million in keeping with its commitment to build back its financial reserves and raise staff compensation. Depending on the level agreed to during negotiations, raising staff compensation could put the budget gap closer to $7 million. Each 1% increase for employee wages amounts to $825,000. A full 5% raise for all employee groups, therefore, would add $4.1 million to the budget gap.

Although the board wasn’t voting on any decisions Monday night, Hill said, she wanted to ensure the board was focused on making student-centered decisions with the least amount of harm to students. She also said she wanted to be upfront with district staff about the direction the board wanted them to head during the budget-balance process.

Board member Kelly Jones said she viewed staff retention as student-centered work and asked the district to take a look at what it could mean to fully fund the higher amount for staff raises.

“Is $7 million something that we can do?” Hill asked.


Kathy Johnson, executive director of finance, said the BPEC could evaluate scenarios to “get to large numbers” and bring them back to the board. “Then it will have to be up to you to decide how far you want to go in some of those spaces to make that number happen.”

Johnson said the decision didn’t have to be made tonight. “I fully anticipate knowing that your plans have been to try to come up with those contingency reserves if possible, and definitely salaries has always been something that we’ve been trying to navigate or expecting that it needs to be higher. But what that top number is, we’ll wait for your direction on that.”

Future of schools

Johnson walked board members through a summary of the nine subcommittees’ budget-cutting proposals, beginning with ideas advanced to the board for staffing at elementary and middle school levels, as well as the English Language Learners (ELL) program.

She explained several scenarios addressing the closure or repurposing of elementary buildings. Staff levels are determined by the class size maximums (known as thresholds) set by the district. If enrollment remained flat for elementary schools in 2022-23, a reduction of costs of 14 full-time equivalent staff alone in elementaries — with no school closures or changes — could save $855,000.

Closing a school, she said, would likely save the district $787,000, similar to the costs saved when the district repurposed Kennedy Elementary. Were the district to shutter the building rather than repurposing it, savings might increase to $865,000 with the reduction of custodial staff and other costs, such as utilities.

At middle schools, possible reductions could include a high-impact savings of $967,000 through a school closing. Reducing staff scenarios — such as assistant principals, learning coaches and student support facilitators — could yield up to $468,000 in savings. Another possibility: If flat enrollment were to occur in 2022-23, a savings of $356,000 could be applied through the reduction of staff at middle schools, likely through attrition.

ELL or English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) possibilities, Johnson said, include potential reorganization of the program but would be dependent on other decisions made at the elementary level. “A lot of this dominoes in ESOL, depending upon what the elementary scenarios roll out to be.”

No high school proposals mention closures, but they do estimate savings of combining low-enrollment courses at both high schools into single courses taught by one teacher.

Johnson said the Boundary Advisory Committee would meet in January and could run through school closure scenarios and bring them back to the board with further information. She said “critical” timelines would have to be met if the board were to move forward on a school closure.

“Those have to be done and started in motion in February-ish in order for you to get through all of the steps of that and actually be able to hire and do everything that’s involved in that. It’s a little bit different with the repurpose, but with the closure there is actual some hearings and resolutions, and just a variety of things that have to happen, and the timing of that is a little different than a repurpose, so making some of those decisions in January is going to come to you as those committees meet and bring back information.”


Other possible cuts

Johnson gave the board a quick overview of some of the other proposals under review:

  • Administrative proposals range from $56,00 to $307,000 by reducing principals and upper-level administrators.
  • Although no specific sports were mentioned, athlete-to-coach ratios were examined, including comparisons of other Sunflower League schools.
  • Reductions of fine arts and club sponsorships were also proposed as cost-savings ideas within the Athletics and Activities Subcommittee.
  • Curriculum and Instruction Subcommittee proposed possible deep cuts of up to 75% to librarian and learning coach positions for a potential savings of up to $2 million.
  • Facilities and Operations ideas include cuts to supplies and utilities, as well as the possible sale of underutilized property at Holcom and the former Wakarusa Valley Elementary.

Upcoming meetings related to budget and boundaries include the Budget Program Evaluation Committee from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 5, and the Boundary Advisory Committee from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 12.

The board met privately in executive session for 20 minutes to discuss contract negotiations.

The board’s next regular meeting is at 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 10. Find the board meeting agenda and related documents here. Watch the board meeting via livestream here or tune in to Midco Channel 26. Email before 6 p.m. Jan. 10 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.

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