Article updated at 10:39 p.m. Monday, Feb. 14:
Lawrence school district staff members have their work cut out for them: Don’t close any schools, and find $7 million in budget cuts that won’t impact students on a daily basis.
School board members, partway through a Monday evening budget work session, decided to take school closures off the table — for this year. They acknowledged that the deep budget cuts wouldn’t be easy, but they mentioned looking at options such as administrative cuts and restructuring some federal funding the district receives.
“If we only address the deficit this year, we are failing again, and I can’t live with that,” board member Kelly Jones said.
The district faces a $3.2 to $3.85 million budget shortfall. School district committee members, staff and board members have been working for months to determine how to make cuts to reach a balanced budget by July 1. District staff last week packaged various cost-cutting measures into three main options — two that included school closures, and one that included everything that had been proposed other than closures — but board members indicated Monday that those options were not where they wanted to be looking.
Some board members said they might consider closures down the road, but not with the tight timeline in which they would need to make those decisions to go into effect for the fall.
But some made it clear that they would like to revisit the closure option within the next year.
“I want to clarify … I am not against school closings. I think it’s probably something that should happen, looking at the data,” board President Erica Hill said. “However, I think there are other models or other scenarios that we could explore. And again, it’s happening so quickly. That’s the part that I am uncomfortable with.”
School board Vice President Shannon Kimball said she could support school closures, but not the plans that had been proposed this year. She also emphasized the “large, big-picture systemic issues that we need to be solving.”
“This budget situation is not a blip. It’s become a feature of our budget over time … and so we can’t treat it as ‘we can fix it this year and we’re done,’ because that is not, in my opinion, going to free up the resources that we need to redirect them to improving student outcomes, and making sure that we can pay a living wage to our classified staff and appropriately compensate our teachers,” Kimball said.
Superintendent Anthony Lewis pointed to not-so-distant district history: In 2011, the same kinds of discussions were happening. Ultimately, that school board voted to close Wakarusa Valley Elementary, but a task force also recommended the district consider consolidating some other schools within the next few years — possibly to include New York, Pinckney, Cordley, Hillcrest, Sunset Hill, and Kennedy, which has now been repurposed as an early childhood center.
“Ten years ago, we were having these conversations, and it seems like the longer we kick the can down the road, the heavier it gets,” Lewis said. “So I don’t think this is a matter of if we close schools, but when.”
Board members agreed that the district does still need to aim to cut $7 million in order to balance the budget, commit to compensating teachers and classified staff fairly, and rebuild depleted contingency funds.
At the same time, they encouraged district staff to find cuts that won’t affect students on a day-to-day basis.
“We’re kind of talking out of both sides of our mouths a little bit,” Hill said. “… We’re saying no school closures in the near short term, but we’re also saying find $7 million. And we’re also saying we don’t want the students to feel the impacts of this.”
Board member Andrew Nussbaum said he was ready to have a conversation about where cuts could be made at administrative levels.
Data the district provided to the Times shows that total annual spending on administrative salaries increased by about $1.07 million from 2014 through 2021.
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Lewis mentioned that the Kansas Association of School Boards is working on a study that includes a comparison of administrative staff and salaries across school districts. Lewis has previously said he was surprised when he first came to Lawrence at the “lack of uniformity” in administrative salaries.
“We will plan to definitely share that information as soon as it is verified,” he said Monday of the KASB study.
Jones said she wants district staff to consider how Title I funds, used to help minimize disparities in math and reading, are distributed. She asked staff to compile a report on how those funds are currently being used and how they might be applied differently in the future.
“Right now, we structure our Title funding so that it lives only in our elementary schools. It does not follow students to the middle schools,” she said. “… I think it is time for us to consider, while we are restructuring services, how do we deliver Title funding?”
Some board members also expressed interest in hearing more from teachers about budget-cutting ideas.
Though the board’s decision early in the meeting to take school closures off the table likely changed the tone of public comment, board members still heard from more than two dozen community members, most regarding the budget, neighborhood schools and the personal impacts that schools have had on their lives and their families.
Board member Kay Emerson closed the meeting on a positive note and a call to action.
“What comes next will affect all of us — east, west, north and south. If you’re not involved with discussing school closures, trust me, you’ll want to be involved in the next part of the discussion, so pay attention. Get up to speed,” Emerson said. “… We will continue to have this discussion in the months ahead regarding the future of our neighborhood schools.”
Emerson encouraged community members to reach out and offer help because they will all be affected by this.
“We need to reframe our conversations on how this is an opportunity to streamline our services, maximize our resources, and reimagine how we do business so that we don’t have to go at this alone.”
There will be school board meetings again at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 21 and Feb. 28. On Feb. 28, State Board of Education member Ann Mah, whose 4th district includes Lawrence, will give the board a legislative update.
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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.