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Lawrence school board asks for budget cut list that minimizes harm to students

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Lawrence school board members on Monday asked building leaders and administrators to provide them with a long list of potential budget cuts, prioritized by those least harmful to students, so they can make final decisions at their March 28 meeting.

During the special school board meeting, most members came to a general consensus that the best way to move forward with budget cuts would be for the district to provide a prioritized list of potential options — including cutting staff and programs — that is higher than necessary.

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The total amount of these cuts was unclear, but Chief Academic Officer Patrick Kelly said his team would go as deep as they could while compiling the list and include the potential repercussions of each line item. This would allow the board to prioritize certain programs and have money available to provide raises for staff.

Kelly said there was a caveat with the list administrators will present to the board. He said everything the district does is for a reason, and even the budget cut that will be prioritized as No. 1 is going to hurt students. 

“But this is the situation that we’re in and we’ll let you know as much as we can about each one of those options.”

School board Vice President Shannon Kimball suggested that staff leave “smaller dollar things,” like girls gymnastics, middle school basketball and orchestra, off of the list for the initial cuts to balance the estimated $3.2 to $3.85 million deficit.

School board Vice President Shannon Kimball and board members Carole Cadue-Blackwood and listen to board member Kay Emerson during a special meeting on Feb. 21, 2022. (Screenshot)

“See if you can get there in other ways that you know are more likely to be sustainable and aligned with all the priorities that we’ve been talking about,” she said.

For instance, she said it was pretty likely that the district would end up with multiage classrooms and adjusted class size ratios, and some smaller buildings would share administrative leadership. 

With school closures off the table for this year, the board’s timeline to make final decisions on budget cuts leaves a little more breathing room, but the board still has some tough decisions to make quickly. The district is legally required to balance its budget by the beginning of the next fiscal year, July 1, but other deadlines are also approaching.

The board must notify teachers and administrators by May 20 if their contracts won’t be renewed. But Samrie Devin, outgoing executive director of human resources, said district employees need to know sooner than that. 

“They need to start making decisions for themselves and their families,” she said. In addition, she noted that nationwide, the teacher pool is smaller than it has been in years past — a recent career fair drew about 60 potential teachers, when previous events have drawn double that. 

Board member Kelly Jones said going past March 28 could also complicate negotiations with the teachers union and PAL-CWA, the classified staff union.

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Board members also said they want administrators to look at cuts outside of previous options that have been presented to them.

Kelly said staff could publish the list of potential cuts ahead of any meetings where the board will discuss it so that the community has time to review it and provide feedback. 

Kelly asked the board to also think ahead about how it might involve stakeholders and gather input from students, families, staff members and the community for “large, structural changes” of the district’s budget for long-term fiscal health. That phase of the budget reduction process could begin as soon as April.

Lawrence school board members Kelly Jones, Andrew Nussbaum and Paula Smith during a special meeting on Feb. 21, 2022. (Screenshot)

Community feedback

The district launched a ThoughtExchange online survey on Feb. 9 to gather community feedback on potential budget cuts. It garnered 60,502 ratings, with 1,747 people participating and 1,959 thoughts shared. 

The top three ThoughtExchange results all expressed displeasure at administrative salaries, with the top comment saying the administration needs to “take responsibility instead of sacrificing students and staff for their poor leadership.” 

However, some of the information being shared in the ThoughtExchange was incorrect. One of the top-rated comments suggested that Superintendent Anthony Lewis is related to another administrator in the district, who is also Black. Lewis said this was untrue.

“This information about the superintendent and nepotism is, you know — it’s sad that I have to even defend this,” Lewis said. “How racist can that be perceived? Do all Black people look alike? Are all Black people related?” 

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Kimball said the misinformation being circulated was her top concern in the ThoughtExchange process. 

“I am struggling to see how any of the information that we’re pulling from this ThoughtExchange is going to be useful to me as a board member when people spent all this time ranking stuff that’s completely factually inaccurate,” Kimball said.

Board member Kay Emerson said that she sees some value in this process of receiving feedback from the community because it provides the board an opportunity to address widespread misconceptions directly.

“It’s important … that we know what people are saying so we can address it head-on,” Emerson said. “Now we can say, publicly, ‘this is not right’ and move on.” 

The board’s next meeting is Monday, Feb. 28. Kelly said administrators will bring back a full, articulated process for final budget decisions. The board is also set for a legislative update from State Board of Education member Ann Mah. 

School board members discussed but did not decide on a date for a possible special meeting between the next two that are scheduled on Feb. 28 and March 28 in order to discuss budget cuts. Meetings are open to the public, livestreamed on the district’s YouTube channel and broadcast on Midco channel 26. Full meeting agendas are available at this link.

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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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