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Lawrence school board approves $120K for consultant to project future enrollment and facility usage

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Post updated at 8:19 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9:

The Lawrence school board unanimously approved Monday a $120,000 partnership with a consulting firm to help guide the budget process and determine the future of the district’s schools. 

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The independent consulting firm, RSP & Associates, is based out of Overland Park. It assists school districts across the Midwest with enrollment projections and facility master plans. Lawrence Public Schools has worked with RSP in the past to obtain enrollment projections.

The board heard a presentation from Robert Schwarz, CEO of the firm. RSP will produce a five-year student enrollment projection, a development and housing analysis, and a demographic profile within the district as well as a recommendation of facility usage to the board. The results will be delivered by February 2023 as part of budgeting for the 2023-2024 school year.

Board President Shannon Kimball during Monday’s meeting shared she had been receiving comments of public concern over the last few days, one question being about why the district would seek an outside consultant. 

“I think we owe it to our community. We owe it to our scholars and families to bring in an expert to do this work,” Superintendent Anthony Lewis followed.

“Considering that we’ve cut our budget $6 million, our administrative team close to $600,000, and reduced some staff positions there, I don’t think we can afford not to have an expert like RSP, who has a proven track record and has worked with school districts around the country.”

Kimball added that, “In my mind, the reason for doing this is that we have to come to a place where we are operating successfully financially so that we are not faced with having to make those kinds of huge budget cuts again.”

The district will work with RSP to create a committee of 30 to 40 appointed community members who will provide input throughout the process. The first committee meeting is to be held on Sept. 7.

“What we’re looking for with these people is that they can critically think about not specifically where they live, but the entire district,” Schwarz said. “We’re only as good as the entire district, right? So they have to be critical thinkers. We want them to have a balance throughout the district.” 

Multiple board members agreed there needs to be a focus on representation and asked RSP to use the district’s equity tools throughout the process.

“Make a commitment to review the equity policy that we have in place when you’re forming those committees and developing that application process. We have that in place for a reason and for situations like this, so I would ask that you would make a commitment to review that before you start creating those committees,” Board Vice President Paula Smith said.

Board Past President Erica Hill agreed.

“There are people who advocate for what’s important for them, and they’re very vocal,” Hill said. “So I would like to see a commitment to ensuring, at a minimum, meaningful participation from the underrepresented groups, which would mean being intentional about inviting them to the table.”

Board member Carol Cadue-Blackwood referenced areas of town, like East Lawrence, the Prairie Park neighborhood, and the Brook Creek neighborhood, and asked Schwarz to ensure students have safe walking and travel access to schools.

Results from RSP’s analysis will be delivered to the district by February 2023 in the form of reports and presentations that show enrollment projections, demographic statistics, and movement of students that could impact building usage.

The contract with RSP is to be paid from the district’s general fund with the possibility of assistance from federal COVID-19 relief, or ESSER funds, pending the Kansas State Department of Education’s response to the district’s request, Lewis said.

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During public comment, Tatyana Younger, a leader of the Personnel Association of Lawrence, said the classified staff union is opposed to the district spending money on consultants. 

“We’ve been told there was no money for any more raises, and we continue to face a staffing crisis,” Younger said. “Putting that $120,000 toward our classified and certified staff would get us that much closer to equitable living wages or help us hire additional staff to ease our staffing issues. As a union, we also believe that the people closest to the problems are the people closest to the solutions.” 

Board member Kelly Jones mentioned her recent conversations with Lawrence Education Association (LEA), the district’s certified teachers union, about requests, such as horizontal movement in pay. With funds going toward RSP’s work, Jones asked Lewis if the district would still adhere to its ongoing commitment to teacher salary negotiations.

“Do you find, Dr. Lewis, if we were to approve this $120,000, hopefully it would come from ESSER, but if it came from the general fund, do you believe that we would be able to meet the requests of the LEA that will continue in dialogue with them of course at the negotiations table on Thursday?” Jones asked.

Lewis responded in agreement with Jones and said, “I would not entertain this if I didn’t believe we could meet that.”

In other business:

School resource officer report

The Lawrence Police Department has offered to supply two additional SROs to the district, which would allow the district to assign one SRO to each high school and each of the four middle schools. After concerns during Monday’s discussion about a greater presence of law enforcement representatives in schools amid a lack of enough mental health resources, the board members decided they will revisit the issue at a future board meeting.

Mill levy set: 

• The board voted 6-0 to approve maximum mill levies and budget authorities for publication, and setting a budget hearing for Sept. 12. According to the presentation from Cynde Frick, the district’s executive director of finance, the mill levy of 51.776 means that the owners of a home valued at $250,000 will pay about $1,346 in taxes to the district.

The next board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Aug. 22 at the district offices, located at 110 McDonald Drive.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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