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Unclear whether Lawrence school district took steps to seek additional COVID relief funds

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Update — Tuesday, Feb. 1: Lawrence school district seeking $4.2 million in COVID relief funds

A Lawrence school district spokesperson said she was unsure whether any staff members had completed the first step to seek COVID relief funds that Douglas County has available by the Monday afternoon deadline. 

Many Lawrence advocates in the movement to “#saveourschools497” have been seeking alternative ways that the district can fill in a multimillion-dollar budget gap, rather than closing schools. Some community members have called for the district to apply to Douglas County for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, though district leaders have said they’re not sure how the one-time funds might help.

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Monday at 5 p.m. marked the county’s deadline for those interested to submit a letter of interest in the ARPA funds, which is “highly encouraged, but not required” of those who plan to submit proposals for grants. The district can still apply for grants, but county commissioners will use data from the letters of interest to “establish program parameters, guidelines and spending priorities,” according to information on the county’s website.

The district was reviewing the permissible uses of ARPA and may submit an application for one-time projects to support school needs related to COVID-19, spokesperson Julie Boyle said in an email Monday. She said she had asked some district staff members but not heard back from anyone about whether they had submitted a letter of interest by the county’s deadline.

“Applying for ARPA support of general school district operations would be gambling on receiving, and receiving in a timely manner, one-time funds for temporary assistance with long-term, complex financial challenges that require sustainable solutions,” she said. 

The state of public school funding is due to legislative decisions in Kansas, not COVID, Boyle said. The district’s enrollment decline between 2019 and 2021 — which resulted in declines in state funding — was “likely compounded by COVID-19,” Boyle said, but the district’s declining enrollment began pre-pandemic.

“The district’s current General Fund shortfall requires permanent and ongoing cuts,” Boyle said. “The board’s strategic plan priorities, such as improving staff compensation and student learning and support also require a stable source of funding year after year. The ARPA information asks applicants: Is the use of the funds sustainable? In both of these cases, no, it is not.”

During the meeting Monday, Jan. 24, school board Vice President Shannon Kimball addressed the funds and the community’s interest in them, but stressed that ARPA was not a long-term solution.

“I, along with other board members, have received a lot of emails about the ARPA funds. We can explore that, but again, it’s one-time dollars,” Kimball said. “When that money runs out, then what?”

The Lawrence school district has received approximately $20 million in federal emergency relief funds specifically intended for schools. 

“These funds have been used to support health and safety, and student, staff, and school building needs directly related to COVID-19,” Boyle said. 

There was no special school board meeting set for Monday evening, despite multiple mentions last week of a possible budget work session. 

Board officers decided not to hold the session because they decided that the Equity Impact Analysis — scheduled for Feb. 9 — should happen prior to the budget study session, Boyle said. 

Board members have mentioned the district’s equity analysis tool several times in the ongoing discussions regarding potential school closures. Much of the backlash against school closures centers around equity and the disproportionate proposed closures on the east side of Lawrence. Board member Andrew Nussbaum, who has said he opposes school closures, mentioned last week that he had not yet seen the tool, despite the tight timeline that the board faces to make decisions. 

Boyle said Jan. 18 that “The Budget and Program Evaluation Committee will determine the process for completing an equity analysis of each subcommittee proposal. When finalized, the equity analysis tool will be posted to the BPEC’s webpage.” No information about the tool had been published there as of Monday afternoon. 

The next school board meeting is its regularly scheduled one set for Feb. 14. In the meantime, BPEC will meet from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 9. Meetings are livestreamed on the district’s YouTube channel

The board must decide Feb. 14 whether it wishes to hold public hearings on any school closure proposals. If so, those hearings will occur on or around March 9, according to a timeline from the superintendent, and the board would need to make final decisions about any closures on April 11. 

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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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