The Lawrence school board met Monday at district offices. Here are items from our preview and what happened with them, plus some additional notes.
Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew swore in newly elected board members Kay Emerson and Andrew Nussbaum and reelected board member Kelly Jones at the beginning of the meeting Monday. (Photos below.)
Key points – the board:
• Received an update from Superintendent Anthony Lewis on district operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Context: Amid surging COVID cases in the county, Lewis presented the board with numbers of how many students and teachers have been absent in the district since returning from winter break.
Student attendance has been 81% since school resumed. On Jan. 6, 117 staff members were absent; on Jan. 7, 147 were absent; and Monday, 104. The substitute teaching fill rates were 87.7%, 83% and 81%, respectively, which sparked some concern among board members.
“These numbers are frankly pretty alarming,” Jones said.
In a late update to its online dashboard after the board meeting, the district added 45 new COVID-19 cases among students and staff. Almost 400 students are in quarantine.
Board members asked how schools can remain open with staff shortages and at what point schools would need to close. Lewis didn’t give a definitive metric but emphasized that these absence numbers were across the entire district, and that other teachers and administrators often cover classes when subs are not available.
“We have the staff to support our buildings, to make sure our classrooms are covered,” he said, noting that at least 75 people who work at the district’s administrative offices could be readily available to jump in if needed. The district is doing its best to stay ahead of staff absences in order to warn families ahead of time if any buildings would have to be closed, he said.
He emphasized the importance of vaccination, testing and masking to keep schools open.
“Regardless of what you hear, masks do indeed work,” Lewis said.
He also mentioned “layered mitigation strategies,” such as staying home when sick, washing hands, social distancing, incorporating air purifiers in every classroom, and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s testing program. However, there’s currently a statewide shortage of tests.
“We just learned a couple hours before this meeting that there is a shortage on testing (supplies), so we will get some information out about how we will modify that testing program,” Lewis said.
Lewis also cleared up some confusion about conflicting guidelines for quarantine after exposure. He noted that although CDC guidelines may have changed from recommending quarantining for 10 days down to five for teachers and students in schools, KDHE and Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health guidelines have not. However, he said the KDHE is planning to share updated guidance on Thursday.
Lewis said returning whole classes or schools to online learning is not really an option. Because of HB 2134, which the Legislature passed in its last session, remote learning is allowed but it is limited to 40 hours per student per school year unless a student has extenuating circumstances. Otherwise, Lewis said, returning to remote learning means risking state funding.
“Our hands are tied with what we can offer remotely without some type of penalty,” he said.
• Approved a plan for staff to start rebuilding the district’s cash reserves.
Kathy Johnson, executive director of finance, told the board that of Kansas’ 286 school districts, Lawrence is 275th in terms of having the lowest amount of contingency reserves set aside.
The goal amounts Johnson proposed to the board would get the district to a level that lessens the strains on general funds and provides a minimum contingency reserve fund balance for unforeseen emergencies. The district is facing a budget shortfall estimated at $3.8 million, but Johnson said the cash reserves are important to help navigate the unexpected.
The board also approved a replacement for Johnson, who will retire Feb. 1. Cynde Frick, currently director of financial operations for Baldwin City Public Schools, has been selected for the position. Her start date had not yet been determined Monday.
• Heard support for the Lawrence gymnastics program.
Context: A proposal to cut the district’s gymnastics program has faced backlash from parents and local athletes. Several people took the podium Monday to express how important Lawrence gymnastics is to them.
Coach Kat Farrow spoke, along with several student athletes and parents, to advocate for the program. Many of the speakers noted that gymnastics, with several state championship titles, has been a historically successful program in Lawrence and that the program brings diverse groups of girls together.
“You all do have to make some hard decisions to try and balance the new budget. However, due to the flimsiness and falsities of these reasons, we are left to wonder where and why you were misled about our situation,” Farrow said.
“Given these circumstances, we are prepared today to make sure you fully understand the facts surrounding our program, who we reach, and why we matter – and that is not simply a budgetary matter.”
Jon Cross, a parent who spoke at the meeting, mentioned the petition he recently organized — which now has more than 2,000 signatures — to show the kind of public support the program is receiving.
• Approved a plan to build a districtwide WAN Fiber network.
Context: The district currently receives wide area network (WAN) and internet services from Midco, but that contract will expire June 30.
Zach Conrad, executive director of research, evaluation, accountability and instructional technology for the district, explained that building a private WAN Fiber network has more benefits in the long run. As the district attempts to save money, it is also looking to “expand our capabilities,” he said.
Improved bandwidth, increased security, and savings on long-term costs were all factors in the board’s decision.
“We would be saving 83% over the life of those current leases over what we’re already spending. I was really pleasantly surprised by those numbers,” board Vice President Shannon Kimball said. “This is an opportunity we can’t afford not to take advantage of.”
New board members sworn in
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Emma Bascom (she/her), reporter, can be reached at ebascom (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here.