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Save Our Schools 497 group continues to fight for education at local, state levels

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A local group’s fight to keep Lawrence’s neighborhood schools open is over for now, but they’re not slowing down. 

Save Our Schools 497 is a group of community members that fought to keep all Lawrence schools open in the face of proposed school closures and a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall. The group held rallies and meetings to inform and organize the community. 

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Instead of a rally this week, weather permitting, members of SOS will be available for an hour leading up to the 6 p.m. Monday school board meeting for informal conversations with community members and to answer questions people may have.

“We don’t feel like it’s appropriate for us to disappear,” said Alicia Erickson, a founding member of Save Our Schools 497.

Alicia Erickson

“… We learned by being thrown into the deep end this past month how complex and overwhelming the information is that’s out there, but also how terrifying and how vulnerable it feels to have something close to your heart threatened.”

Erickson, along with the rest of the group, has been fighting against school closures since closure proposals were first presented in mid-January. During the Feb. 14 school board meeting, board members agreed they would not close schools to bridge the district’s budget shortfall just yet, but some said they want to revisit the option next school year. 

“It felt like they started listening to the community and gave us more time, which has been our biggest ask from the start,” Erickson said. “We feel like that is the start to having real community discussion and a community look at the budget and the financial health of the district as a whole.”

When the school closures were taken off the table for this year, Erickson said the group “felt heard” — but not yet relieved. They know this is not the end of solving Lawrence Public Schools’ budget woes, but an even more difficult beginning. 

“It just feels like the start of a long process,” Erickson said.

‘Larger issue’

SOS is now focused on finding a stopgap to make it through the year, looking at the district’s long-term financial health, and ensuring the community’s involvement in these processes. 

Shannon Berquist, another founding member of Save Our Schools 497, said the group’s goal has always been to shift focus to the state level once things calmed down locally. Lawmakers in Topeka decide how much funding school districts get on a per-pupil basis, and an enrollment decline in the district has exacerbated its current budget issues. 

“This is a larger issue of statewide funding for public schools,” Berquist said.

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Even before school closures were taken off the table for this year, Berquist said SOS members met with state Rep. Dennis “Boog” Highberger to learn more about Kansas’ education funding and what they can do to help.

Erickson said there are many programs that have “been fighting the good fight for so long,” and that SOS’s immediate plan is to have meetings with the people involved to learn from them and offer support. Some of the groups SOS wants to work with include Educate Lawrence, Freedom to Learn and Game on for Kansas Schools.

“We don’t want to duplicate work they’re doing, but how can we amplify what they’re doing? How can we fill in gaps that are happening?” she said. “How can we take what they’re doing at a state level and translate it to local support in our district?”

Lawrence school board Vice President Shannon Kimball mentioned during the Feb. 14 school board meeting three bills currently under consideration at the Statehouse: House Bill 2662, Senate Bill 393 and SB 363. She said the Senate bills would require teachers to post everything they’re going to do for the year by July 1. One of them would take away 2% of a district’s state general funding every time it “does not comply” with the requirements, according to the bill. 

Berquist said she hopes that, if it looks like legislation that is harmful to schools will go forward, the group can protest at the Capitol.

And in Lawrence, “We still need to continue offering support … ideas to the board, and let them know that we are still there, and that we’re in this for the long haul with them and with the district. That we do want to be a part of this process.”

August Rudisell / Lawrence Times file photo

Fighting ‘for everyone involved’

Now that school closures are off the table, “programs are center stage,” Erickson said. 

The budget reduction options that district staff presented to the board on Feb. 14 included extensive cuts to some programs and positions. Library media assistant positions could be cut by 75%, for instance. 

SOS’s next “big ask” is for the district to add more options to the list of programs that may face cuts so that all programs can share the burden of budget cuts. Board members on Monday also indicated that the options presented were not where they wanted to be looking. 

“We don’t want to see any single program completely eliminated,” Erickson said, mentioning high school gymnastics specifically. “[We want] to make sure if the district is making cuts to certain programs, that there’s a way to support those and make sure that they’re able to continue for the next year or two, and then be brought back still fully healthy without missing a beat,” she continued. 

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Another short-term goal for the group is to engage community participation in this process.

“We’ve heard some really creative ideas from teachers, and community members have stuff that needs to be looked at versus dismissed,” Erickson said. “… We need to get community voices and ideas on this proposal sheet so that the board has a more diverse list of options, and that those options are spreading the burden of these budget cuts across the board so that we aren’t gutting certain areas.”

The district launched an online ThoughtExchange survey for community members to provide feedback on proposed budget cuts. The survey’s deadline was extended to Feb. 16 so that more information can be shared at the Feb. 21 meeting. District spokesperson Julie Boyle said the school board will also take public comment at that meeting and at the one set for Monday, Feb. 28. 

But Erickson said if there was a formal process for community members to submit requests for items to be included in budget-reduction options, then there would be more creative solutions and “more transparency into what is being considered or what is not being considered and why.”

Erickson recognized that so much community input is a tall order for the board, and she said SOS wants to help narrow down proposals to those the group believes could be most effective. They’re searching for a way to better represent all of Lawrence. 

Erickson said it’s important for the public to have a stronger voice in this process because “that’s where creative, out-of-the-box ideas are going to come from.” 

“That’s where critical ideas are going to come from. It’s hard for people to look at their own positions in their own structures critically, and that’s been shown with the lack of central administration positions that have been put on as cuts for the proposal.”

Members of the group are currently creating a survey so that teachers and staff can voice their concerns anonymously. One long-term goal is to develop a formal program that allows for teacher and staff voices to be heard in a safe, confidential way.

“I know there have been a lot that feel they aren’t in a place to be able to voice exactly what they’re thinking because they’re employees,” Erickson said. 

She said that outside of school closures and current budget restrictions, SOS 497 wants teachers and staff to be able to voice concerns or needs in a safe way so they can feel like their jobs are protected. 

“We want this to be a group that is around for the very long term, that functions to protect and fight for a good experience in education for students, for teachers, for staff, for families, for the community, for everyone involved.” 

As of Friday afternoon, no agenda had been posted for the school board’s special meeting, set for 6 p.m. Monday at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive. Board meetings are open to the public and livestreamed on YouTube

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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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