Vital factors playing into Lawrence school district’s funding are in state Legislature’s hands

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The Lawrence school district’s budget for next year awaits state legislative decisions regarding school funding.

That means two scenarios to plan for, according to a report by Executive Director of Finance Cynde Frick at Monday’s school board meeting.

The district must take a headcount of all full-time equivalent (FTE) students each year on Sept. 20, which is then reported to the Kansas State Department of Education. Those enrollment numbers will likely decrease once they are audited in the spring, Frick said.

The unaudited student data is also meant to help guide the district during its budgeting process. The district’s FTE enrollment count this year was down 8.3 from last year, at 9,977.3, Frick said. That’s the main factor the state uses to determine how much funding a district receives per year — this year being $4,846 per student.

The Kansas Legislature must follow the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in 2022-2023, in accordance with the Gannon ruling in the Kansas school finance case, which would result in a funding increase — but Frick said the district will not know the calculated increase until March or April.

“If the state decides to keep us flat or to offer some increase lower than the three-year average of the CPI, the case would be going back to the Supreme Court,” Frick said during Monday’s meeting. 

“So that’s a huge question mark in our funding and what it would look like for next year. Best case scenario, we could see an increase of $4 to $5 million. Worst case scenario, we’re stuck at $4,846 until something else happens, and so that’s another reason that the way the school finance law is, we just don’t know these things until a couple months before it’s time to produce that budget. So we essentially have to plan both ways and see what comes to fruition.”

The number of students who qualified for free meals on Sept. 20 is the count the state uses to determine the district’s “at-risk K-12 weighting,” but Frick said the district considers several other factors when determining which students are deemed “at-risk.”

This year’s number of students qualifying for free meals is higher than any of the five years prior — at 3,566, or 35.3% of all students, compared to 2,365 students in 2021-22. That’s nearly a 51% increase. The free meal weighting for 2022-23 enrollment would equal about $8.36 million in funding for the district, Frick said.

The average number of students qualifying for free meals in the three years leading up to the pandemic — 2017-18 through 2019-20 — was 3,250, according to numbers in the report. This year’s total represents a nearly 10% increase from that average. 

The past two years saw lower numbers of students qualifying for free meals because federal funding allowed free meals to be provided for all students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Families were not required to apply to receive free meals, Frick explained. 

“This is not in the district’s control, but I think it is important to note to the community that there is an upward trend of the number of highly impoverished families in our community, and that’s concerning,” Board President Shannon Kimball said during the meeting.

Frick reported on three “at-risk” funding areas – at-risk K-12 students; at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds, or preschool-aged students; and “high density” at-risk school funding. 

The state’s definition of “at-risk” for funding purposes is simply the number of students who qualify for free meals. Frick said the district’s criteria for at-risk K-12 students also includes factors such as experiencing homelessness, having high rates of absenteeism, and more.

The district receives “high-density” at-risk funding from the state if 50% or more of all students qualify for free lunches, or if individual schools have at least 35% of their students qualifying for free lunches. The district’s current high-density weighting means it would receive $800,559. This weighting ends after this year and the Legislature must renew it in order for it to continue into 2023-24, Frick said.

Kimball said she is not confident the Legislature will continue funding high-density weighting and that the community should be “mentally prepared” for that outcome and its effect on the district’s budget.

“That loss of $800,000 is almost equivalent to what we talk about as the number that we need for a 1% increase in salary for all staff — for all employee groups,” Kimball said. “So that would be [a] substantial loss to our budget if that were to sunset next year. It will sunset automatically unless the Legislature takes action. I am not hopeful that they will continue it, based on what I’m hearing.”

Determining factors of preschool-aged at-risk students focus more on family factors in addition to qualifying for free meals, Frick said, such as being from single parent households, having teen parents, either parent lacking a high school diploma or GED, and others. Frick reported there are 52 at-risk preschool-aged students and the district is receiving $126,000 in funding.

Enrollment in Lawrence Virtual School dropped by about 190 students this year, Frick said. That enrollment is funded differently, and the drop could mean a loss of about $1.06 million in funding for the district.

Frick also gave an update on the district’s ESSER II and ESSER III funds, or federal COVID-19 relief funds. The district is currently using its ESSER II funds, which must be utilized by Sept. 30, 2023. Frick noted there is “money left in certain areas” that the district will “redistribute to other approved areas.”

The district would like to make amendments to its ESSER III application moving forward, Frick said, including to adopt a social emotional curriculum — estimated at $300,000 — and survey programs, including Panorama Education and Educator Perceptions and Insights employee survey. The board on Monday gave an informal consensus in support of those proposed ESSER III amendments.

In other business:

• Native American-themed mascots and imagery in schools: The Kansas Board of Education (KSBE) on Thursday supported a recommendation from an advisory group calling for the removal of Native American-themed mascots and imagery use in Kansas public schools. 

Board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood said she works with the Kansas City Indian Center and the Not In Our Honor Coalition to stop the appropriation and that she was excited to see KSBE take a stand.

“I would like to commend the Kansas Board of Education for voting in favor of eliminating Native American-themed mascots within five years,” Cadue-Blackwood said. “… As a licensed social worker, as a mom, as a Kickapoo and a Potawatomi woman, I was just happy. I’m still elated, I still can’t believe they voted in favor, so yes, I am excited that I was able to share this news.”

• Consent agenda items: The board unanimously approved a new contract with Panorama Education to help the district interpret its data through engagement surveys. The contract, to be paid from ESSER III funds, is not to exceed $176,700 for a three-year agreement, according to the meeting agenda.

Additionally, the board unanimously approved a payment to the City of Lawrence for $33,336 worth of improvement repairs to sidewalks adjacent to eight district schools. The repair costs will be paid out of the district’s facilities and operations capital outlay fund. 

Those items passed 4-0. Board Vice President Paula Vann and board members Kay Emerson and Kelly Jones were absent from the meeting. 

• Community feedback survey: The district is seeking community input on budget cuts through an online survey. All members of the community are encouraged to take the survey, which is open now and will close at the end of this week — on Friday, Nov. 18. The survey can be accessed at this link and is available in English, Spanish, Arabic and Standard Chinese.

The Lawrence school board is next scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 28 at district offices.

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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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