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Lawrence school board members question proposed cuts to administration, other staffing

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Cuts to administration that both did and did not make it into recommendations for the Lawrence school board to consider drew questions from board members Tuesday evening during their budget work session. 

District administrators recommended a restructuring of administration; on the other hand, they recommended against a 5% reduction to administrative staff who make $100,000 or more, which would save about $169,600.

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The district is facing a budget shortfall estimated between $3.2 and $3.85 million dollars, though the school board members have said they’re looking to make around $7 million in cuts to provide staff raises and rebuild depleted reserve funds. On Tuesday, Executive Director of Finance Cynde Frick said that with an estimated loss of funding from declining enrollment, plus increases in property/liability insurance and utility costs, the district will most likely need to save between $3.62 and $4.27 million. 

School board member Andrew Nussbaum asked why the 5% reduction was on the list of nine potential cuts that administrators recommended against, as opposed to the list of 23 that they favored. 

The questions surrounding administration and the budget come less than a month after the school board learned from a Kansas Association of School Boards study that of Kansas’ 18 largest districts by enrollment, Lawrence — with a K-12 enrollment of 11,150 and 20 central office administrators — has the third highest ratio of administrators to students.

School board Vice President Shannon Kimball said that the line item in question included not just administrative staff in district offices, but also building principals and more. 

“I think that is, for me, the reason why it should not be on the list,” she said.

Kimball also said that, if building principals are removed from that line item, the savings would be “substantially smaller,” which is why the district chose to not recommend it. Nussbaum asked district staff to provide more information in a Friday report to the board that will also include more information about the reduction of library media specialists

Board member Kelly Jones asked for some additional clarification regarding $400,000 in administrative restructuring that the district staff did recommend. She asked staff to provide further information “on whether or not … there isn’t a deeper cut that can happen there to offset some of these other changes.”

The board had opted to remove from the list of potential cuts an item that was looking at the reduction of clubs and activities like novice band/orchestra, all-city choir and more. They decided to table the discussion about cutting the girls gymnastics program until they receive the results of an ongoing Title IX evaluation. Altogether, that came to about $41,000 in cuts that board members don’t want to make; however, if all the other cuts remained as proposed, the savings would still be about $6.41 million. 

Jones expressed concerns about potential loss of staff. She said that “restructuring” in these situations typically means cutting staff, but “one of the things that we’ve talked about with our unions is looking at minimizing the number of or eliminating at all the loss of jobs for our current employees.”

“… I’m worried about retention, to be quite frank.”

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Chief Academic Officer Patrick Kelly acknowledged the desire to have clarity, but said the district has a negotiated agreement on reduction in force that it has to follow. 

“So we don’t know who’s going to resign or retire, or all those things yet, so it does make it a little bit tricky to provide some of that clarity that I think some folks probably hoped for,” he said.

Kelly echoed Jones’ concern about retention. 

“Anytime we have these discussions, we’re going to lose staff. We lost one today,” he said.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis said that the process may be similar to what the district did with the closure of Kennedy Elementary.

“There’s a process already in place for when there’s resignations and retirements, and we’ll seek to place those people based on their certification,” he said. “So, I mean, we can’t say that we’re going to guarantee X number of people will have their positions, but through normal attrition — i.e. resignations and retirements — we believe we can place people in positions.”

Later in the meeting, Nussbaum asked about line items eight and 20, which recommend reduction of staff at the high school level. Cynthia Johnson, the district’s executive director of inclusion, engagement and belonging, said staff would first look at combining or reducing low enrollment courses such as French and German based on students’ course requests for the fall. 

Nussbaum, who worked for several years in special education in the district, also raised concerns about a line item that would restructure staffing for an estimated $172,862. He  said he’d like to hear more about that, “especially with the importance of special education in our district.”

Kevin Harrell, executive director of student services and special education, said two vacant positions in special education could remain unfilled. Gifted education could also be modified to be more efficient. 

Nussbaum also expressed concerns about line item 21, which would cut custodial staff, among other positions, for an estimated savings of $384,661. He acknowledged the work custodians do in district buildings. 

“I just want to be on record that I’m concerned about the custodian staff being reduced even more, consolidated even more based on the buildings and what I’ve been hearing from staff.”

Kelly explained that the restructuring “might look like a few things — one being the night custodian and sharing staff. And so there’s a couple different scenarios that we can walk down that path, but, again, there’s details here that — we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there.”

The board will need to make final decisions on all the line items at their next meeting, Monday, March 28. Board members will also hear public comment at that meeting. There was no public comment during Tuesday’s special meeting.

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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.

— Mackenzie Clark contributed to this article.

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