Lawrence school district’s Futures Planning Committee members express frustration with budget cut process

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The Lawrence school district’s Futures Planning Committee members expressed frustration during their meeting Thursday evening, saying that the process to select and implement a budget cut proposal has felt performative rather than collaborative. 

The first 45 minutes of the meeting allowed committee members to speak for two minutes, giving everyone a chance to voice their concerns regarding the proposed changes and advocate for adjustments. 

If passed, the current proposed budget cuts would save the district an estimated $7.6 million to $9.6 million by implementing a four-day school week, eliminating a district administrative position, and closing of two elementary schools and one middle school that have yet to be publicly named. 

Switching to a four-day school week would save an estimated $700,000. The other proposed changes would save an additional estimated $7.15 million to $9.1 million by making three major adjustments. 

The first “bucket” of budget items suggests increasing middle schools to 28 students per classroom and high schools to 30. Additionally, this proposed change would reduce classified and student support staff, reallocate district payment to 403(b) retirement plans, and eliminate middle school teachers’ second planning periods. 

The second group of cuts impacts extracurricular activities by reducing the amount of funding available to extracurricular activities. Lastly, closing or repurposing three unspecified schools is projected to save between $925,000 and $1.25 million. 

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Draft list of proposed budget cuts

Superintendent Anthony Lewis opened the meeting at district offices by showing several passages from early 2000s newspaper articles about the district, few of which were positive. 

“So now what are we gonna do to change the narrative in the headlines?” he asked the committee before opening the floor for discussion. 

John Palmgren, a teacher at Prairie Park, said he agreed with many other members who felt rushed into making tough decisions, but pointed out that eventually, the committee will have to reach a decision in order to avoid a repeat of last year — when the district cut dozens of teaching positions and increased class sizes. 

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times Members of the Lawrence school district’s Futures Planning Committee meet on Feb. 2, 2023 to discuss proposed budget scenarios including a four-day school week, closing three schools and increasing class sizes. 

“We are very divided, and divided on it [making a decision], just because people have different life perspectives,” he said. 

Speech language pathologist Annette Dabney echoed Palmgren’s thoughts, saying that all parents want what’s best for their children, even though that looks different for every parent. Dabney, who works as a special education teacher at Hillcrest Elementary, also voiced her concerns regarding the proposal to increase class sizes. 

Increasing class sizes and reducing staff, Dabney said, would ultimately harm the district’s ability to identify kids who may need special education programs, resulting in a major disservice to Lawrence’s youth. 

“But I do feel that if we are going to continue to be successful we have to think about the safety of children, and how they’re going to get to school, and not putting more pressure and stress on parents that are already stressed out,” she said. 

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times

Melinda Nickles, a fifth grade teacher at Quail Run Elementary and union representative, said she’s been approached by staff members wondering what cuts will come next, and whether they can have more manageable class sizes.

“And I feel like I can’t tell them that because I don’t think it’s gonna happen,” she said. “But I can tell you I’ve taught virtually, I’ve taught hybrid. I’m not trying to scare my principal, but this is the first year that’s made me want to leave education — and I’ve only been teaching for four years. So we’ve got to do something.”

About halfway through the meeting, committee members broke off into smaller groups to brainstorm. They were tasked with finding ways to achieve the three main goals the committee set in the fall: achieve competitive wages for staff; allocate funds for annual cost increases; and increase district cash balances. 

Much of the conversation in the small groups, however, reflected what was said at the meeting’s start — committee members are frustrated with the lack of trust, action and transparency they feel the district’s consultant has demonstrated.

“A committee like this — where we sit for an hour and a half and are talked at, and then talk to five people at our table for 10 or 20 minutes — that is not a true collaboration, and is not actually opening it up to ideas,” said Alicia Erikson, the parent of students at Woodlawn Elementary and Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. 

The ninth and last committee meeting will occur on Wednesday, Feb. 15 with hopes of reaching a consensus on the proposed changes. 

A special school board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 21 will give board members time to deliberate before casting their final votes on Monday, Feb. 27. 

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Chloe Anderson (she/her) contributed to The Lawrence Times from August 2022 through May 2023. She is also published in Climbing magazine, Kansas Reflector and Sharp End Publishing. As a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, Chloe plans to continue her career in photography, rock climbing and writing somewhere out West.

You can view her portfolio, articles and commissioned work here. Check out more of her work for the Times here.

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