Lawrence school district’s planning committee concerned about ‘skewed’ survey results

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Post updated to add presentation link at 1:50 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1:

Members of the Lawrence school district’s committee for budget and facility planning expressed discontent with a district survey aimed at gaining the community’s feedback on budget cuts.

The Futures Planning Committee — consisting of students, parents and community members as well as district administrators and staff members — met for its fifth meeting on Wednesday to further its work on the 2023-24 budget and facility use plan. RSP & Associates, the consulting firm hired by the district to lead the process, gave a presentation that included results from a recent public survey.

Through the survey, community members were essentially asked to prioritize which “bucket,” or area of funding, should receive budget reductions. 

There were 2,669 survey responses. The majority — 59% of respondents — agreed the district should prioritize “Bucket 3: Facility Utilization” and mostly supported changes to the school calendar and closing or consolidating school buildings.

59% of respondents said that schools are not currently being used to their highest level.

Rob Schwarz, CEO of RSP, said during the meeting that a more extensive facilities analysis should be ready in December. 

Committee members were placed into groups of 3-5 during Wednesday’s meeting to discuss their thoughts on the survey results in addition to other agenda items. 

Committee members said they were shocked by the high numbers of questions respondents chose not to answer in the demographics section. For example, 31% of respondents declined to answer what quadrant of the city they live in, and approximately 39% of respondents chose not to disclose their racial identity, according to the results. RSP facilitators said they felt this number of nonresponses was normal for a survey like this.

Some committee members pushed back against that and were displeased that a large portion of respondents who did answer those questions identified as white, 85.5%, and were from the northwest quadrant of town, about 36%. 

“It does seem to be – if you’re looking at it – sort of skewed toward the Northwest side of town,” committee member Jessica Beeson said. 

“We’re a little concerned that maybe more people of means and education are probably gonna fill this out,” Beeson said of her group’s reaction. “The data seems a little surprising in how many nonresponses we have and then particularly as you bring that up in demographics, how low anything outside of white is and then this huge ‘choose not to answer.’ So that’s actually not really normal in surveys — for it to be quite this extreme.”

Beeson went on to say that ahead of the survey’s release, committee members shared concerns about many of the survey’s questions but were told they were finalized. School board members also shared concerns at their Nov. 7 school board meeting. Board member Kelly Jones said during that meeting that community members taking the survey may not understand the “complexities” of some of the questions they were being asked to analyze.

“Also we are concerned that there are questions – I think this was briefly mentioned – but even having questions in here about, like Wednesday early release or planning time was pretty silly because those are things that are negotiated, so we have no control over and shouldn’t be making recommendations on anyway,” said Beeson, a former school board member. 

She said her group wanted to talk about how the school board had raised similar concerns to those the committee had, “and so it really felt dishonest and so we just have some problems with the survey overall.”

Schwarz said some issues, like questions about teaching and learning, were included on the survey more so to assist administrators rather than directly impact any final decisions.

The survey was open for 10 days earlier this month, and all members of the public were invited to participate. The majority of responses, 45%, were from parents, though community members, district staff and students also participated, according to the results.

The Futures Planning Committee’s three financial priorities remain to achieve competitive wages for staff, allocate funds for annual cost increases and to increase district cash balances. 

Update: Wednesday’s full presentation was uploaded to the district’s website Thursday afternoon at this link.

Maya Hodison/Lawrence Times Members of the Lawrence school district’s Futures Planning Committee meet at district offices on Nov. 30, 2022.

Enrollment and school closures

RSP’s presentation considered a variety of factors as they relate to future enrollment. According to RSP’s analysis, the “driving themes” of the district’s future enrollment are its current student population, live births in the area and student migration trends, and the community’s development activity — which includes housing and predicted growth from the incoming Panasonic plant.

According to RSP’s projections, district enrollment is forecasted to steadily decrease, losing just more than 300 students over the next five years, by 2027-28. Elementary school enrollments are forecasted to decrease by 20 students in five years; middle schools by 130 students; and high schools by 170 students.

The key metric in the district’s funding from the state is enrollment. Essentially, as enrollment decreases, so does the funding the district receives. This is important as school closures may be on the table for next year.


Clarifying responsibilities

After some confusion around the specific responsibilities of the Futures Planning Committee, Schwarz said direction given by the school board to focus on bigger-picture planning will aid them as they continue through their process.

One of the directives that be heard from the board — and this should be some relief to many of you, if not all — is you’re not going to be making a decision that says, ‘We’re cutting 10 FTE, we’re eliminating this English [class] or we’re eliminating these coaches,’” Schwarz said. “Thankfully, that’s not the detail we’re getting at.”

As part of Wednesday’s presentation, the Futures Planning Committee’s role was outlined, stating it is “tasked with providing input and advice to the Board of Education on how the district can best achieve the financial priorities.” 

The Futures Planning Committee is scheduled to meet next at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14 at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive. Visit the district’s website to learn more about the committee.

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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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