By the end of a five-month process of analyzing potential budget cuts for next year, some members of the Lawrence school district’s budget planning committee felt facilitators and district leaders lacked transparency and dismissed their ideas. Others felt the committee achieved its purpose.
The Futures Planning Committee — made up of 39 community members and district employees, parents and students at the start — volunteered to participate in meetings with the district and its consultant, RSP & Associates, led by CEO Rob Schwarz.
Now that their role has concluded, some members are reflecting on concerns they had — and voiced — throughout the process.
“It was not a very adaptive process to the ideas that were created and formed in the committee, and it felt perfunctory — just checking the boxes to make sure that it had all the proper appearances for what might have already been in the works,” committee member Travis Tozer said.
The biggest concerns FPC members expressed in interviews following the final meeting were a lack of full transparency, their inability to collaborate as a group during meetings, the “performative” usage of an equity tool at the end of the process, and the feeling that their ideas ultimately went unappreciated.
Though facilitators did add an extra meeting to the schedule, some committee members said there was not nearly enough time to complete the process thoroughly, especially with big cuts on the line — including potentially three school closures.
“When you’re talking about that coming to the forefront and being voted on this far into a year and implementing it for the following year, it feels rushed and just disrespectful to the teachers in the communities to me,” said committee member Alicia Erickson, founder of Save Our Schools 497, a group that formed last year to support keeping neighborhood schools open.
Committee members during a meeting on Feb. 2 spoke to feeling rushed and shared additional issues they had. The group’s nine total meetings lasted around two hours each.
Suzie Johannes served on the committee as a parent of students in the district. She said she understood RSP facilitators wanted to stick to an agenda during meetings, but committee members often couldn’t participate in open dialogue and were rather asked to do small group activities.
As a result, she said, they resorted to exchanging thoughts through email chains outside of meetings.
“My experience with the committee was that the conversations and the activities and everything we did were really controlled at a table-by-table level, and there’s very few opportunities to openly talk about ideas and pros and cons as a group,” Johannes said.
Last year, the district faced a budget shortfall of $6.4 million. The district this year announced it needed to make $9 million in cuts, with the top priority of achieving competitive wages for staff. Some committee members said they never received the concrete answers they wanted regarding what that $9 million means for salary increases once dissected.
“Last year, we had to make cuts in order to break even, and this year these cuts are being made because we do need some for reserves and to increase operations, but I think the biggest chunk is for raises for staff, and I think there’s only so much we can do within the context of how much money we get from the state,” committee member Nikki Perry said. “To me, I feel like these cuts go too far and they are gonna not be taking care of our staff because we’re going to be creating really bad working conditions for them.”
Sharing ideas and concerns
Of the three recommendations the FPC members voted to add to their recommended scenario package, including administrative cuts, a four-day week for students and the utilization of solar energy power, two are not being considered as part of the superintendent’s recommendation.
When the school board met for a special meeting Tuesday evening, Superintendent Anthony Lewis told the board he would not recommend cutting an administrative position, which would have resulted in an estimated $128,000 in savings. During the previous school board meeting on Feb. 13, the board approved a traditional five-day-week calendar for next year, so a four-day week will not be considered.
Lewis also said during Tuesday’s meeting that he would consider the possibility of solar power, which would reduce emissions, but potential cost savings have not yet been explored. Committee members said solar power, which was the only item in the scenario that did not come from a pool of recommendations they submitted the prior meeting and was rather created by a committee member, was a popular idea among each other and the public.
Kiley Luckett, who was listed on the committee as a district administrator, said the idea to implement solar power came from her table group. She said she felt she consistently had an opportunity to share her ideas or ask questions.
Luckett is the mental health coordinator for the district and also serves on the Equity Advisory Council (EAC) and the Superintendent’s Advisory Council.
“I think there’s parts of the proposal that show that the process works, and I think a great example of that is looking into solar energy,” Luckett said. “So if there were other ideas that people had, I think that there were opportunities to put those out there, and whether they got added to the final proposal or not, doesn’t mean that they weren’t heard.”
Several FPC members sent emails to school board members ahead of their Tuesday special meeting, imploring them to listen to concerns that had not been specifically addressed earlier.
Committee member Toni Clogston sent an email, with the help of some fellow committee members, to school board members Tuesday morning outlining specific frustrations with the budget process.
Clogston said she served on the committee as a community member with grandchildren in the district because of her concern for communities and the value neighborhood schools add to them, though she is not completely opposed to closing schools.
Community members attended public input sessions in mid-January, where they could see the current scenario and provide feedback. Clogston said when she asked an RSP consultant what was done with the comments from community members, she was told “you just kind of read through them to get a feel” and that no analysis was completed for the committee to reference because of time constraints.
Public input comments were filed into long documents — 23 pages of in-person feedback at this link, and 44 pages of online feedback at this link. That didn’t sit well, especially with Clogston, who’s trained in data analytics.
“We stood in front of the public, talking about that scenario and listening to them and encouraging them to put down their thoughts,” Clogston said. “If they weren’t comfortable doing it there in front of us, they could go to the web form. And then they did nothing with it, really.”
Some committee members said they began having concerns about the committee soon into the process. Sending emails resulted in their feedback being either declined or met with silence, they said.
As they felt the process rapidly coming to a close, some committee members organized a plan, but Tozer said they were shut down.
“In the leadup to the last two meetings, we as a committee shared dozens of emails through mass email chains trying to maximize our input and our voices,” Tozer said.
Clogston along with a group of committee members drafted a detailed Excel spreadsheet that noted committee members’ individual ideas and then sent that in an email to administrators and RSP facilitators outlining how they would have liked the final meeting to go.
One suggestion from a committee member, for example, was for top-paid employees to take temporary salary cuts. According to estimates in the spreadsheet, cuts ranging from 2% for those making more than $80,000, to 8% for those making more than $120,000 and 10% to the superintendent’s $233,000 salary would add up to almost $179,000 if the cuts lasted six months, or almost $358,000 if the cuts were implemented for a full year. KU announced a plan to implement similar cuts in June 2020 to save about $7.9 million while the university dealt with $120 million in revenue loss related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Clogston said she felt her ideas were not welcome as administrators redirected FPC members to the agenda for that final meeting.
“I knew this was going to be very challenging — that the district had big shortfalls, but I thought they really asked us to actually come together and discuss and collaborate, and that’s where I feel we fell short,” Clogston said. “To me, it felt very deliberate, like controlling the story, controlling the scenarios. If what administration wanted was to present their scenario to close two schools or three schools, they should have just said that. Don’t try to fake the public. Don’t try to tell the board otherwise.”
District spokesperson Julie Boyle said via email that Lewis has considered the committee’s and the public’s input.
“The school board created the Futures Planning Committee as a Superintendent’s Advisory Committee,” Boyle said via email. “The superintendent appreciates the committee’s thoughtful study of ways to achieve the board’s top financial priorities. Dr. Lewis is taking the committee’s guidance and the community’s input under advisement as he finalizes his recommendations to the board.”
Equity analysis of budget cuts
During the final FPC meeting on Feb. 15, the 34 members present participated in a poll in which they voted “yes” or “no” to statements of support regarding budget cut items. Boyle said via email that the district was surprised that the majority of poll takers voted in support of all items with the exception of the four-day week. Committee members voted 17-15 against that item, with two abstentions.
After the poll, members in their small table groups of four or five were assigned one of the 10 budget cut items. Each group was tasked with applying its item to the district’s four equity constructs. They were then told to denote the item as “must not cut,” “could be cut,” “should be cut” or “must be cut” based on the harm it may cause those with a range of identities across the district. There was no discussion of their analyses before the final meeting ended.
View the full results of the equity impact analysis activity at this link. The sole item committee members said “must be cut” was that of closing one or two elementary schools.
Tozer, who joined the committee as a parent of students in the district, said he felt the equity analysis was an afterthought. He’s been involved with the district, running for school board in 2021 and currently serving on the EAC and New York Elementary School Site Council.
“I feel like everything was leading up to that ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on those 10 items,” Tozer said. “And once that was done, it was all just to fill the time. The equity tool should have been introduced probably a ways before that. I’m also on the Equity (Advisory) Council, so I know that the equity tool wasn’t finalized, but it didn’t feel like we were using equity as a serious consideration up to that point. So by using it as an exercise after the ‘yes’/‘no’ votes, it didn’t feel like it was incorporated into the process very well.”
The school board approved an equity policy for the district in 2021. Recently, Lawrence Public Schools received positive feedback about its equity work from an accreditation team during an annual review. Clogston said the implementation of an equity activity toward the end of the FPC’s process felt contradictory to the district’s rhetoric.
“Everybody kept saying ‘Equity surrounds all of this,’ ‘Equity is important to all of this,’” Clogston said. “We voted on the scenario items, they recorded our votes and then we discussed equity. We went back to our small tables again, not as a group, and we never came back together and said ‘OK, the group that was talking about the second planning time for middle schools,’ as an example, ‘what did you decide?’”
Erickson, who served on the committee as a parent of students in the district and who’s also a member of the PTO at Woodlawn Elementary School, agreed an equity analysis should have been prioritized but was not.
“It felt like that should have been our biggest tool and taken the biggest amount of time, and it felt to do that in 30 minutes and only to be able to look at one line item at a time with four or five people, felt very performative,” Erickson said.
“It was to say that the tool was used, versus really digging into it, trying to recognize and acknowledge our biases and privilege, and then have that as a full discussion with the committee before voting on anything. The backwards way it was done just felt like a micro example of how it had been done backwards from the start.”
Boyle said via email that equity is “at the heart of everything we do in Lawrence Public Schools.” She did not specifically address the FPC members’ concerns that the equity impact analysis was not done until the very end of the process.
Strengths and weaknesses
Some committee members said presentations with background information about the district’s finances and previous decisions that they were given at the beginning of the process were helpful to starting off strong. That early optimism, though, quickly deteriorated for some as there was confusion around the committee’s specific role.
Perry served on the committee as a parent of students in the district and currently participates in the Boundary Advisory Committee (BAC), Lawrence Special Education Advisory Council (L-SEAC) and Cordley Elementary School Site Council. She said though RSP’s process could have been smoother, she understands the difficulty of leading a committee with high stakes.
“I do think it’s really hard to facilitate things like this in a meaningful way,” Perry said. “That doesn’t mean that this was done great, but I’m the chair of the site council at Cordley, and it is hard to find ways that people can contribute and make sure everybody knows enough so that they can problem-solve together.”
Bob Byers, who served on the committee as a community member, said he was content with the process and that the only frustration he had was a bit of a slow start due to committee members asking for additional information.
Since Byers has been involved with Lawrence Public Schools for around 40 years and served on the school board for five of those years, he already had extensive knowledge and insight into the district and was ready to dive in.
“The bright spots was whether or not the school district takes our suggestions; the important thing for me was that they were at least willing to listen,” Byers said. “They had all the information. Whether they use it or not is a different issue, but my thing is really that they got the information.”
Luckett said she felt the committee lived up to its purpose and facilitators did their jobs in the end.
“We made a recommendation with the information and the knowledge that we had — that was in our purview — and I think we did a good job of that,” Luckett said. “We hired RSP to walk us through the process and RSP walked us through that process. Oftentimes in our meetings we’d say, ‘Oh, we have tough decisions to make.’ Honestly, as a committee, the tough decision doesn’t lie with us. It was with us to make a recommendation and then the tough decisions come from Dr. Lewis, the ELT (executive leadership team) and ultimately the school board. They’re the ones who have a tough decision to make.”
Clogston said the committee was a “good group” and despite frustrations with the process and despite having difficult conversations with each other at their tables, they worked well together.
All in all, Perry said she feels the biggest shortfall was a lack of clarity throughout the process. She wanted the committee to feel confident with a concrete plan by the end, which she didn’t feel was the case.
“For me, I was hoping that we would be able to, as a committee, produce something where we said ‘Here are some things that we’re considering. Here are the pros and here are the cons.’ We might not all agree on what the final thing should be, but I feel like that’s a place where we can find consensus,” Perry said.
Byers said though he supports neighborhood schools, he believes they are not sustainable given the inadequate public school funding from the state legislature.
‘This community, and any community, would love to have all the small schools. The problem is the way our funding structure is with the state of Kansas,” Byers said. “It really doesn’t support that model. I’m not saying that there isn’t ways to make the model work because there was suggestions in the committee meeting that would suggest other ways to make this work so we can keep that. But whether or not the school district would do that, that’s up to the school board — that’s what we voted for them to do.”
Erickson rallied with other SOS 497 supporters outside of district offices before the school board’s special meeting Tuesday. She said she is disheartened to be revisiting school closures and recommended the district use all the information gathered during the six-month process and start from scratch for the 2024-25 year instead.
“It’s hard to look back and try to find the positives because I’m so frustrated with where we are today,” Erickson said. “It feels like such a huge missed opportunity to have really found some better solutions. The weight is heavy today. It feels like there’s going to be another rush [and] come August, there might be schools closed. There might be teachers with overloaded classrooms at the middle school and high school levels now.”
Schwarz, of RSP & Associates, did not respond to an email seeking comment by the time of publication.
The Lawrence school board will vote on a final budget package as part of its meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27 at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive. The meeting agenda will be posted online at this link, but it was not yet available as of publication time.
Lewis said during Tuesday’s special meeting that board members will not be asked to approve closures of specific schools Monday; rather, as required by law, they will consider authorizing a public hearing or hearings to be scheduled.
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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.