A proposal to close four Lawrence elementary schools and a middle school could save the district about $3.25 million, and the school board will have to decide by the end of the month whether to keep that option on the table.
Legally, school board members do not have to decide just yet whether they actually want to close schools amid the district’s budget crisis, but they do have to plan if they wish to hold public hearings on the proposals during their Feb. 14 meeting.
Superintendent Anthony Lewis said he plans to provide some updates to the public at the board meeting on Monday, Jan. 24, and there have been conversations about hosting an additional meeting on Jan. 31 so the board can hear from administration and the public.
The district is facing a budget shortfall between $3.2 and $3.85 million for the 2022-2023 school year following an enrollment drop of nearly 600 students. But the Lawrence school board is looking to cut much more than that — about $7 million total — to improve staff compensation, replenish low contingency funds and more.
The district’s Boundary Advisory Committee (BAC) and Budget and Program Evaluation Committee (BPEC) both met Wednesday as the timeline tightens for those big decisions to be made. Kathy Johnson, executive director of finance for the district, has said the board would need to decide in March or April whether to close any schools.
The first scenario proposed to the Boundary Advisory Committee at its meeting last week was one that would close New York, Pinckney, Woodlawn and Broken Arrow elementaries, and Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. Broken Arrow students would go to Schwegler, and that building — adjacent to Billy Mills Middle School — would be repurposed to hold the additional middle school students from LMCMS. The LMCMS building would then become an elementary school for students from New York, Pinckney and Woodlawn.
That proposal would yield by far the greatest cost savings — altogether, about $3,250,000. But members of those school communities have already begun to push back, launching a campaign to “#saveourschools497.”
Other proposals suggested closing Broken Arrow and New York, which would save about $1.68 million, or Broken Arrow and Woodlawn, for a savings of about $1.71 million. Additionally, closing LMCMS would save about $1.21 million.
One person present for the meeting asked whether the district had looked at making cuts to administrative salaries. According to data the district recently provided to the Times, the total for administrative salaries for the 2020-2021 school year amounted to about $6.5 million, with an average of about $104,000 and a median of $101,000.
Lewis said the administration subcommittee had looked at that, and if all administrators took about a 5% pay cut, it would generate a savings of about $300,000. According to the data for the 2020-2021 school year, it would be about $325,000. Those numbers were not included in Johnson’s presentation.
The BPEC subcommittees in December submitted some other cost-cutting proposals. Johnson’s presentation included some anticipated savings for those proposals, which are still up for consideration. A few examples:
• Share staffing between high schools for courses with lower enrollment to eliminate three FTE positions for a savings of $195,000. Specific courses would be determined later in the spring after students enroll in fall classes.
• Reducing principal positions: Some elementary school principals could cover two schools, with options that could save between about $42,000 and $93,000. Reducing one assistant principal at each high school could save about $68,000.
• Eliminating a curriculum specialist, a director, or an executive director for savings of about $87,000, $122,000 or $141,000, respectively.
• Reducing librarian and library media assistant hours districtwide — reducing hours up to 75% could save about $1.14 million; a reduction of 25% could save $383,356.
Johnson’s presentation notes that gymnastics was not listed in the BPEC subcommittee proposals — “The proposed reduction for gymnastics was an administrative decision made ahead of the sub-committee’s work. The decision about gymnastics will not be made until the Board receives the results of the Title IX evaluation.”
District administrators have drawn criticism from the high school gymnastics team and supporters after their coach was told in December that the program was going to be discontinued. Cutting the program would amount to a savings of about $10,332.
The BAC reviewed a proposal from the English to Speakers of Other Languages subcommittee that explored the possibility of closing Hillcrest Elementary. It’s an ESOL “cluster” site, meaning students across Lawrence travel to Hillcrest for ESOL services, so the district wanted to compare existing busing costs to a scenario that assigned Hillcrest students to schools closer to their homes.
Ultimately, Zachary Conrad, director of data and technology, told committee members this scenario would not reach the cost savings that the district needs and would likely not be recommended to the school board.
If the district closed Hillcrest, it would complicate the boundaries of surrounding schools, and it would be the only school that could close. More than 100 students who live less than 2 miles from the school would have to go elsewhere, and a building with a capacity of 475 would sit empty, he said.
“It doesn’t make sense to close just Hillcrest when there’s additional savings you can find by closing multiple elementary schools in different scenarios,” Conrad said.
Former school board member GR Gordon-Ross asked if closing Hillcrest could be compatible with Scenario 1 from last week’s meeting, which proposed closing several schools. Since Hillcrest has such a high capacity, he asked if the district could replace New York or Pinckney with Hillcrest in that scenario.
“We would not be able to do that,” Conrad said. “The redistribution of the ESOL kids does not allow for Broken Arrow to move into Schwegler. That stops Broken Arrow and also a middle school, so from there it starts to snowball and you’re back to only being able to close down one building.”
Upcoming public meetings to discuss any of these proposals and all school board meetings will be posted on the Times’ events calendar.
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Emma Bascom (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from December 2021 through May 2022. Read more of her work for the Times here.