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Lawrence school board members at odds over specifics of budget committee’s role

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With discussions of building closures looming, Lawrence school board members on Monday grappled with different perceptions of what the district’s new budget committee ought to focus on and how to seek community input.

Members of the Futures Planning Committee — the district’s committee for 2023 budget and facility planning — have discussed budget goals, teaching and learning goals, and facility recommendations during its four meetings so far.

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Robert Schwarz, CEO of consulting firm RSP & Associates, presented to the board on Monday, sharing RSP’s progress with the Futures Planning Committee. A group of school staff, students and community members were selected to serve on the committee to provide input as part of RSP’s $120,000 contract

When discussing ways the board could provide direction or support to the Futures Planning Committee, board member Kay Emerson said the district should provide “guardrails” around conversations about school closures, including planning to provide busing for students affected by any closures for the first year.

“Guardrails also support our Safe Routes to Schools initiatives and our value of neighborhood schools,” Emerson said.

Board President Shannon Kimball pushed back on the ideas, saying they are “not feasible financially or operationally.” She said she wants the committee to make tough decisions. 

“This board has refused to acknowledge the reality that has been true in our district for a very, very long time — we have historically had too many buildings to serve not enough students, given the structure of our state funding,” Kimball said.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Lewis, left, and school board President Shannon Kimball

The committee generated three finance priorities for the district: to achieve competitive wages for staff, allocate funds for annual cost increases and to increase district cash balances, according to page 12 of Monday’s report

After conversing and disagreeing on some suggestions, Kimball called a recess so board members could reset and organize their thoughts. The board eventually came to a consensus in agreement with the committee’s three finance priorities but suggested it work on the timelines.

“As a board, we want the committee to include addressing each of these three priorities in their recommendations to the board in some form or fashion in year one, but that it is OK to also look at a phasing plan to achieve 100% of the goals over a period of time,” Kimball said.

Kimball said the Futures Planning Committee’s responsibility is to focus on “bigger picture work” and “the implementation details” will be the district administration’s responsibility — “because frankly, you could spend another five years digging into those details,” she said.

“It’s not going to help the committee move their work forward if they’re wanting to be in control of all those details,” Kimball said.

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Seeking community input

A public survey is set to go live Tuesday, Nov. 8 and it will remain open through Friday, Nov. 18. Items that are up for budget reductions — as discussed by the committee — have been divided into three “buckets,” which are outlined on page 17 of Monday’s report. Bucket 1 lists various staffing cuts; Bucket 2 lists various program or activity cuts; and Bucket 3 lists facility or utilization changes. 

As part of the survey, community members will essentially be asked to pick which bucket — if they had to choose — should see cuts over the other bucket items, Schwarz said. 

Board member Kelly Jones expressed concern with that approach.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Board member Kelly Jones, right, speaks during the school board’s meeting on Monday. Board member GR Gordon-Ross listens.

“There are these lists of bucket items that look like a duplication of what we did last year, and I’m trying to avoid that,” Jones said. “It was alarming, it was very hard for the community to go through, and this doesn’t look innovative comparative to what happened last year.”

Jones also raised concern that some community members might not understand complexities behind some of the proposed options for cuts. 

“So things like ‘planning time’ might be triggering to someone who does understand the complexity if it came back that the community said that that’s not a priority for us, or someone that said English for Speakers of Other Language services are not a priority for this community — that may be a very loaded thing to come back from the community without everyone understanding the complexities of what goes into those things,” Jones said.

Schwarz explained there will be some information provided along with the bucket items, but community members who take the survey can ask further questions in the comment section of the survey or contact the district directly. He said he believes this type of surveying is vital.

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Rob Schwarz, of RSP & Associates, presents to Lawrence school board members at the special board meeting.

“It’s a way just to evaluate where we are, and give the community an understanding that these are some real things that we’re talking about, and if we’re gonna achieve these three financial priorities at any sort of level — in year one, year three, year five — we’re gonna have to do something different. And something different is what’s gonna be painful,” Schwarz said.

Kimball said she believes surveying the community this way will result in a diverse pool of feedback.

“At least by surveying and asking about these things, we’re gonna get feedback on them from a much broader cross section of the community than we were getting last year when we were having these conversations — at least that’s my hope,” Kimball said.

The survey can be taken starting at noon Tuesday on the district’s Futures Planning Committee webpage, according to Superintendent Anthony Lewis. It will be available in languages including English, Spanish, Arabic, and Standard Chinese, Schwarz said.

“We’re asking everyone that’s in the Lawrence community to take the survey, whether you have children in the district or not. This is about the future vitality of this district,” Lewis said. “We need and want your feedback, so please encourage — as you’re at the polls tomorrow voting — encourage people to let their voices be heard in this survey process as well.”

The next Futures Planning Committee meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30 at district offices. Meetings are open to the public. 

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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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