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3 options for Lawrence school district budget shortfall lean on school closures, major cuts to programs and staffing

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Note: The Lawrence school district announced Thursday, Feb. 10, that data on budget options — included below in this story — was inaccurate.

Corrected data is available at this link. The original story and accompanying data are below. (Updates added at 6:58 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, and 11 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11)

Months of work by Lawrence school district committees has resulted in three cost-saving proposals formulated by district leadership. School closures remain on the table in two options, and significant reductions to staffing and programs in all scenarios would help fill a multimillion-dollar shortfall.

Invited Lawrence school district committee members met Wednesday to conduct an equity analysis on three packages of cost-cutting proposals. The meeting was led by Cynthia Johnson, executive director of inclusion, engagement and belonging, and Zach Conrad, executive director of data and technology.

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August Rudisell / The Lawrence Times Cynthia Johnson, district executive director of inclusion, engagement and belonging, leads a meeting to conduct an equity analysis of cost-cutting proposals, Feb. 9, 2022.

Phil Mitchell, a Free State High School teacher, told Conrad that members of the Budget Program and Evaluation Committee (BPEC) did not see why the packages proposed cuts of nearly $7 million when the deficit hadn’t reached that level.

District leaders have projected a shortfall between $3.2 and $3.85 million for next school year. Meanwhile, the school board has prioritized building back up the district’s contingency reserves and giving staff members  salary increases, including bringing all staff up to a living wage. Each 1% increase in wages results in a cost of $825,000, district staff members have said. 

“We can negotiate how much that we need, and I think it’s a mischaracterization of BPEC work to say that we came out and said we need to save $7.8 million,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell also asked Conrad to explain the process that resulted in the three options presented. “Largely, it was a long list of options; here, they’ve kind of been packaged with set amounts of savings.”

Nine BPEC subcommittees had developed three proposals each, first reviewed by the school board in December. Conrad said BPEC members had two opportunities to give ratings to proposed line items they could support. Conrad said staff combined those ratings, and those produced Option 1, resulting in the closure of five buildings, cuts to 24 academic and athletics programs, and staffing equal to 76 full-time equivalent for a savings of $7.8 million spread across two years.

Conrad said the two-year timeline was necessary for renovations to convert Liberty Memorial Central Middle School to an elementary building containing three closed schools: New York, Pinckney and Woodlawn. In Option 1, Broken Arrow Elementary would also be closed and merged with Billy Mills Middle School to accommodate students displaced by the LMCMS closure.

In Option 3, Conrad said, the district would avoid school closures based on feedback from the community. He said the line items within the $6.7 million option were taken from the proposals that didn’t relate to a school closure. The package would result in the greatest amount of reductions – people- and program-wise – including the loss of 117 FTE staff and 34 programs across a range of academic, athletics and administrative costs.

Option 2 consists of two school closures – Broken Arrow and LMCMS – with a reduction of 99 FTE staff and 32 programs seeing cuts. Estimated savings total $6.8 million. Conrad said the district’s executive leadership team put that plan together by mixing line items into a package with fewer school closures and reductions to staffing and programs. 

All three options would cut the district’s high school gymnastics program, which was not a proposal from BPEC or its subcommittees. The cut would amount to an estimated savings of $10,332 through three staff members. 

20220209-Equity-analysis-Option-breakdown-only

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One participant asked about renovations and if the cost of remodeling would offset savings, specifically in the case of Liberty Memorial Central Middle School.

Conrad clarified that any renovations would come from the capital outlay fund — separate from the general fund, which is facing the budget shortfall.

“We have some capital funds that could be used for that purpose, but it’s really the general where we need to save those dollars,” he said.

Another participant asked why the subcommittee did not explore moving students from west to east. “I don’t feel like we’ve gotten an answer,” she said.

BPEC subcommittees were charged with finding solutions with significant savings, given the shortfall, Conrad said. He said he did run scenarios where they moved students from west to east, but “unfortunately, the cost savings was minimal.” 

“It was actually an expense,” he said. “Outside of this process, we can look at that redistribution, but for this specific purpose, that just didn’t show significant savings.”

Following the questions and answers, participants were divided into small groups to discuss the option they were assigned. They used the district’s equity analysis tool, a one-page rubric, to provide feedback as to what extent each proposal provides or ensures access, representation, meaningful participation and high outcomes. 

The purpose of the tool and its framework is to encourage reflection and conversation “beyond the goal of closing the achievement gap” and toward equitable learning experiences for all, regardless of individual characteristics or group membership.

Though the results of the small-group analysis weren’t released – and that portion of the meeting was muted during live streaming – participants were able to ask questions of district leaders, including Superintendent Anthony Lewis, Johnson and Conrad. 

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Conrad will compile the information from the meeting to include in the executive summary that will be given to the school board before Monday’s meeting, he said. 

The board will also receive details about each option, pros and cons submitted by BPEC subcommittees, and additional feedback. Johnson said community members would be able to weigh in on the options through a ThoughtExchange survey, available at this link, and some of that data will be presented to board members as well. 

The timeline for these big decisions has changed since the district’s Boundary Advisory Committee first heard the multiple-school closure scenarios on Jan. 12.

However, Lewis said Wednesday that Monday, Feb. 21 is the “drop dead date” for school board members to vote on whether they want to publish resolutions that give the district the authority to hold public hearings on school closures. Those must be published for two weeks ahead of public hearings. 

Board members must make the final decision on whether to close any schools in mid-April, Lewis said. 

The school board will meet at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 14, and for a special meeting on Monday, Feb. 21 to hear further public comment on the cost-cutting proposals. Meetings are at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive, and livestreamed on YouTube

School board agendas are posted at this link, usually the Thursday evening prior to the Monday meeting. Agendas had not yet been published for the upcoming meetings as of Wednesday night. 

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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.

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.

Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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