Projected enrollment decline causes financial concerns for Lawrence school district

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Lawrence schools are expected to steadily decrease in enrollment over the next five years, causing district budget concerns as well as questions about the future of the Lawrence community as a whole.

According to future enrollment projections made by RSP & Associates, the outside consulting firm hired by the district, Lawrence Public Schools will lose just more than 300 students by the 2027-28 school year. 

School board President Shannon Kimball said during the board’s meeting on Monday that the district and community together must recognize the severity of this and commit to a solid plan, especially if the Kansas Legislature does not provide districts with increased state funding, following the Consumer Price Index (CPI), during this legislative session. 

Enrollment is the driving force of funding from the state.

“I don’t think as a community people really understand what that is gonna look like for our district,” Kimball said. “It’s not a good place to be in in terms of the financial situation for us going forward … Not only do we have these goals for what we believe we must do for our staff and our students in terms of compensation and programming, but we are also going to be faced with ‘How do we do that on a budget that is going to shrink year over year?’ or be somewhat flat if we get the increases of the CPI calculations. I think that it’s pretty sobering.”

Robert Schwarz, CEO of RSP & Associates, presented virtually to the board on Monday, updating members on his consulting firm’s completed enrollment projections and analyses. 

A budget scenario the district is currently considering includes closing two elementary schools and one middle school. The district is on a mission to find $9 million worth of budget cuts to reach its top financial priority of achieving competitive wages for teachers and staff, and the possible scenario is predicted to save the district between $7.15 million and $9.1 million.

Board member Kelly Jones during the meeting agreed with Kimball’s earlier sentiments but also suggested there may be bright sides to budget issues that will be caused by this declining enrollment.

“I also wanna say that we’re taking this opportunity to operate a space that best suits our district,” Jones said. “There can be some positive things for students in this, and being able to function in a way that best serves our district, so I really hope that when [RSP] comes back to the board, it doesn’t feel quite as heavy and sobering but there are some spaces where we can see where there might be some highlights.”

Jones also showed concern for schools on the east side of town because of previous district decisions.

“I will say for me, looking at this information and kind of projecting out what could be coming, I’m mindful of the moment in which we decided to close Kennedy K-5 and move in early childhood elementary and thinking about those students, if we made a decision to close Liberty Memorial or to close another building in their area – in their region … there [are] those immediate considerations that I don’t want to make light of,” she said. 

Based on RSP’s projections, 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 major contributing factors toward future enrollment are next year’s projected student enrollment numbers; city development activity, such as the De Soto Panasonic on its way and the city housing market; and live birth and migration trends, as the county is decreasing in live birth rates and the district is seeing negative student migration, according to RSP’s data.

Likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Schwarz said, the district experienced a net migration loss, or more students leaving the district than coming to the district, for the past two years. Graduating senior classes are larger than incoming kindergarten classes, which also poses problems.

Additionally, the district is working to reach a target building capacity of 85%. Schwarz said the efficiency of schools “diminishes” when buildings are operating below 85% capacity and more “flexibility” is offered at that specific threshold. Less than 75% building capacity may cause staffing and student program inefficiencies, according to data in RSP’s presentation. Schwarz said RSP and the district will make sure to consult with building educators about the facility usage analysis.

Currently, seven out of the 13 elementary schools — Cordley, Deerfield, Hillcrest, New York, Pinckney, Schwegler and Woodlawn — will be operating at 75% capacity in the next five years, according to RSP’s projections.

Three middle schools — Liberty Memorial Central, Southwest and West — are projected to be operating at 75% capacity in the next five years, as well.

Though names of specific buildings that may be on the chopping block have yet to be announced, board member Kay Emerson during Monday’s meeting asked Superintendent Anthony Lewis if he and his administrative team had a communication and support plan for when that information is shared.

“As soon as a decision is made, we’ll be ready to work with those families to successfully transition them to their new schools,” Lewis responded. “As soon as we know, we’ll be ready that next day to start working with families.”

View RSP’s full presentation during Monday’s school board meeting at this link.

Futures Planning Committee

RSP’s six-month process is set to conclude in February, when they will present final deliverables and recommendations for the 2023-24 year. 

The district’s Futures Planning Committee — a group of community members and district staff, students and parents assisting with this budget process — has three committee meetings remaining. Additionally, two in-person public input sessions are scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17 at Free State High School and 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18 at Lawrence High School. Community members are invited to participate in one or both.

The next Futures Planning Committee meeting is scheduled for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11 at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive. Meetings are open for public observation but not public comment. A virtual option via livestream will not be made available. Learn more about the committee on the district’s website.

The school board will reconvene at 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 23 to hear a data report on assessments as well an update on technology equipment, according to Lewis.

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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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