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Longtime Lawrence school board member explains how district’s budget crisis has unfolded

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Lawrence school board Vice President Shannon Kimball took the board commentary portion of Monday’s meeting as an opportunity to provide some insight into the history of USD 497’s funding woes.

The board heard from about 30 community members asking them not to close any neighborhood schools, and board members said they’d also received “hundreds” of emails. 

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“In many of the emails that I’ve received and conversations I’ve had since the beginning of the year, the community has asked, ‘How did we get here and why are we having these conversations now?’” Kimball said. “I’m going to talk about that a little bit because, of all the board members here, I’ve been on the board throughout all these conversations, and I have some things to share.”

In her speech Monday, Kimball – who was first elected in 2011 — addressed the complex factors that have created this budget crisis over the last decade, including repercussions of Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration, a lack of reserve funds, enrollment declines, and aiming to pay teachers competitive wages. 

Reserve funds and Brownback

In 2012, after two years of work and discussions regarding the district’s operation and finances, the school board decided to keep 14 elementary buildings open, Kimball said. It closed Wakarusa Valley. The following year, a $92.5 million bond issue was passed to repair and upgrade the elementary school facilities. The district called it a “no-tax-increase” bond issue

“Throughout the ensuing years, I, along with my board colleagues and our district staff, have worked very hard to honor the community’s desire to maintain these existing operations and all of our neighborhood schools,” Kimball said. “But to be perfectly frank, it was challenging at the beginning, and it has been increasingly challenging every year since.” 

During the “Brownback years,” when funding was flat and declined in real dollars each year due to inflation, Kimball said, other districts had cut positions, cut programs and closed schools. But the Lawrence school board chose to spend district reserve funds to sustain existing operations and to give salary increases to staff each year, though some years saw smaller increases than others, she said.

“So our board made this choice in part because we knew that the Legislature was looking at sweeping our reserve funds.” 

During the years that the board spent these reserve funds, Kimball said the board made that choice expecting the district’s enrollment to continue to grow and that a new finance formula would give school districts a real increase in school funding adjusted for inflation. “Neither of those things have happened.”

Gov. Laura Kelly’s fiscal year 2023 budget, when adjusted for inflation, puts school districts back at operational funding equivalent to what they were receiving in 2009, she said.

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By the numbers

In April, when the board voted to close Kennedy Elementary to grades K-5, Kimball had foreshadowed continuing budget issues, saying she said she would support that proposal because the district needed to maximize its existing infrastructure.

Kimball further explained Monday that base state aid per pupil was $4,400 per student at its highest in 2008 and 2009. This school year, it is $4,706 – just $306 more per student than 12 years ago.

However, “Our funding this year is worth $750 less per student than the equivalent of what we were receiving in 2008. $4,400 in 2008 had the purchasing power of $5,457 this year. To put it another way, what we’re getting this year would be equivalent to if we had been getting $3,795 in 2008,” Kimball said. 

“So the harsh and inescapable reality is that school districts lost a decade’s worth of real growth in funding, and therefore real growth and ability to pay our staff adequately and pay the ever-increasing costs of everything else that we do,” she continued. “Another harsh reality of the level at which the Legislature has set the per-pupil funding now under the new school finance formula is that it is not intended to support districts in maintaining low enrollment schools in a community the size of ours.”

Excluding Title funding, special education, and everything except for the services provided at each school, the cost of providing the basic general education services at the smallest elementary school in Lawrence this year is $7,150 per student, according to a recent budget presentation. For the second smallest school, the cost is $6,605.

“That is respectively $2,444 per student, and $1,899 per student more than we are given for this by the state to provide those services for each of those students,” Kimball said. “That’s real. That is real, and it’s a gigantic challenge.”

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Enrollment

The district’s enrollment forecast that they used for the 2013 bond “did not come to pass,” Kimball said. The bond planning assumed a 1% annual growth rate, and although enrollment did grow from 2010 to 2018, it began to really decline — by about 300 students — at the beginning of the 2019 school year, well before the pandemic hit. 

Because the district used almost all of its reserve fund between 2011 and 2020 to pay for ongoing costs, Kimball said, “we did not have reserve funds to address the loss in funding that was caused by the decline in enrollment that we’ve experienced starting in 2019.”

Additionally, declining birth rates in Douglas County project incoming kindergarten classes to be smaller than outgoing senior classes, which means future cuts, she said.

This, she said, is most of the estimated $3.85 million in necessary budget cuts that the board has been discussing. The district is legally required to balance its budget before the beginning of the fiscal year, on July 1. 

Paying teachers fairly

“Even if we didn’t have to make cuts to our budget because of the enrollment issues and the funding, our community has made very clear that its expectation is that we work on teacher and classified staff compensation. I wholeheartedly agree that we must do so,” Kimball said.

Despite small raises over the past few years when they were possible, Kimball said Lawrence has fallen behind surrounding districts. She said she recently spoke to a certified staff member who left the district at the end of last year. They were offered $14,000 more to do the exact same job in a nearby district. 

“That is real, it’s untenable, and frankly is unsustainable for the future of the quality of education that we provide in our district.”

Despite those facts and the need to stay competitive, it is expensive to do so. Each 1% increase in wages means an $825,000 expenditure, Kimball said.

“That’s the reason why we are talking about more than $3.85 million. Because if we don’t talk about more than $3.85 million, we have $0 to commit to any staff increases in wages for the upcoming year.”

That’s how the district got to the current discussions, she said. 

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“None of us could have anticipated the pandemic and the impacts that it would have on those decisions, but it has exacerbated some things that have been going on for well over a decade in our district.”

In closing, Kimball again emphasized the declining birth rate and enrollment trends the district is facing, saying “these are trends that we have to come to terms with” and that the district must “adjust our operations to address them.”

“That might mean closing buildings; it might mean making really painful and extensive cuts through our programs, changing the way that we assign staff,” Kimball said. “It might mean all of those things or just some of those things, but regardless of which of the painful options the board has to consider and ultimately choose, it’s my personal belief that ignoring the financial realities that I’ve just described is not going to help us, and it will actually lead to further harm – both to the quality of education that we are able to provide to all of our students throughout our district, as well as to the future financial soundness of our district as an institution.”

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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.

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