As the Lawrence school board prepares to soon approve final budget cuts for next year, board members asked district administrators for more concrete details about plans for school closures and more.
School board members heard the current budget scenario, asked questions and held discussion during a special meeting on Tuesday evening. After having time to consider, they will be asked to make their final vote on the recommendations the following Monday.
Superintendent Anthony Lewis said the board will be asked then to “approve a package of savings” and then schedule a public hearing where community members can voice their thoughts to the district. He said board members will not be asked during Monday’s meeting to approve closures of specific schools; rather, they will authorize a public hearing or hearings to be scheduled, as required by law.
Board member GR Gordon-Ross said he wanted more straightforward detail into the district’s timeline ahead of Monday’s meeting.
“Personally, I don’t know that the community can handle that much uncertainty,” Gordon-Ross said. “I would like the administration to come with what they think the final plan is. If they have schools that they think would be the best options, I wanna hear what they are. I don’t want them to come with four or five or even three. If they think there are two schools out there that they feel are the best options, then tell me what they are. I’d like the uncertainty to stop sooner rather than later.”
RSP & Associates CEO Rob Schwarz and RSP planner Ginna Wallace presented on Tuesday, giving a recap of RSP’s six-week plan with the Futures Planning Committee. The district hired RSP & Associates on a $120,000 contract to assist with budget planning.
At the final Futures Planning Committee meeting last week, the 34 members present were asked to individually vote on an online poll “yes” or “no” to statements regarding budget items, such as “I support the closing/repurposing of one middle school,” for which 84% voted yes and 16% voted no, or “I support a reduction in district administration,” for which 69% voted yes and 31% voted no. Committee members had an option to not vote on certain items, but at least 32 members voted on each question.
They then finished that meeting by applying the district’s four equity constructs — access, representation, meaningful participation and high (positive) outcomes — to each budget item. Small groups of four or five worked on one budget item each and were finally asked to choose one of the following regarding that item: “must not cut,” “could be cut,” “should be cut” or “must be cut.” Small groups noted disparities they predict to happen because of each budget cut. Results also showed small groups most confidently supported the need to close or repurpose schools.
Full results of the equity impact analysis activity can be viewed at this link. The only item committee members said “must be cut” was the item on closing one or two elementary schools.
Board member Kelly Jones asked Schwarz and Wallace during Monday’s meeting about putting committee members in tough positions to vote on budget items without specificity.
“I just want to make sure I understand clearly: They were ranking and voting on items, for example, close one or two schools or repurpose an elementary school, without knowing which neighborhood or what the implications would be?” Jones said during the meeting. “If they knew the actual plan their votes would be very different — do you think that’s a true reflection?”
Schwarz responded they wanted to eliminate possible bias among individual committee members to reach the district’s goal of making $9 million in budget cuts to achieve, primarily, an increase in staff wages.
“If our goal is to get as close to that $9 million objective that we had — that the board gave us — without it being biased by some of the elements that go into how you personally connect to a building or to a teacher, knowing that in the end when you make your decision that’s gonna be a real thing,” Schwarz said during the meeting.
The largest potential cut in the current recommendation would be to increase high staffing ratios to 30 students and middle schools’ to 28, which is estimated to save between $3.25 million and $5 million.
Another recommended cut from the Futures Planning Committee was one district administrative position, which would save an estimate of about $128,000. Committee members voted 69% to 31% in favor of that recommendation; however, Lewis told school board members Monday that he would not recommend that cut.
“I think this board hired me to run an efficient school district, but first and foremost, to be fiscally responsible with our resources and our facilities,” he said. After the district cut about $500,000 in administration positions last year, he said, board members “may not see that” on the final recommendations next week.
Lewis also said the district will not move to four-day student weeks for the 2023-24 school year. The board approved a traditional calendar at its meeting last week.
Two other substantial cuts — cutting middle school teachers’ second plan time, estimated at $1.3 million, and stopping district contributions to 403(b) retirement accounts, estimated at $1.26 million — will depend on negotiations with the teachers union. Jones said those conversations are still in early stages.
Closing three schools, which have not yet been named, would save the district between an estimated $925,000 and $1.1 million. Additional cuts in the recommendation can be viewed at this link.
Doug Loveland, learn studio principal with ACI Boland Architects, during Tuesday’s meeting presented to the board about his team’s facilities assessment, which scored district buildings on their condition. Jones asked what type of collaboration he did with teachers to rank the weighting of the building scores, and Loveland said the district teachers he sought input from were solely those on the committee.
“So the teachers that you talked to were those exclusively at the Futures Planning Committee?” Jones asked for clarity during the meeting. “You did not talk to teachers at the individual buildings to see how they operate or utilize their buildings, so you wouldn’t be able to provide us feedback on how it’s actually being utilized at individual buildings, correct?”
Jones also pointed out the potential harm of closing schools that will affect the same students who were moved from Kennedy Elementary School when it was closed to grades K-5 and transitioned into Kennedy Early Childhood Center.
“I’ll wanna know the impact on Title funding for our elementary buildings that we are combining,” Jones said, referring to additional funding that individual schools get depending on student demographics.
“We looked at that with Kennedy, so I imagine that was already part of something that you were considering and would be prepared to bring to the board,” Jones said. “And then speaking of Kennedy, wanting to be very thoughtful about the students for whom we have already moved into new communities and thinking through what we know about the research around the number of transitions that a student has in their academic year, and that some of those students — not all of them, but some of those students — have more challenges than other students. So wanting to be careful or thoughtful about, to the extent possible, not impacting those kids again with another closure.”
The school board will reconvene at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27, when they are scheduled to give their final vote on the recommendation.