Lawrence school district leaders outline budget challenges for crowd at Chamber luncheon

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Inadequate state funding for public schools and special education has greatly contributed to the Lawrence school district’s current budget crisis and a need to consolidate schools, according to district leaders.

Lawrence school district Superintendent Anthony Lewis and school board President Shannon Kimball spoke to businesspeople and community members during the Chamber of Lawrence Government and Community Affairs luncheon on Wednesday.

School board members on Feb. 28 voted to hold public hearings to consider closing Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementary schools. They also voted to cut 50 full-time staff members. The cuts are part of the district’s plan to save $9 million in its 2023-24 budget to raise staff salaries. 

Proposals to close schools and cut staff have been met with outcry from community members and district staff, this year and last year. 

Kimball said the district has a “giant hole” in the middle of its salary schedule that the district has been unable to fund, which may cause educators to leave the district for better pay in surrounding districts — around $15,000 more in Leavenworth, Blue Valley and similar districts, Kimball said — or to leave the profession entirely.

“We cannot, given the cliff that is coming in the teaching profession and all of the other things that are causing people to leave the profession, we will not be able to continue doing what we do for kids in our community if we cannot fix that,” Kimball said. “That is why the board feels such a sense of urgency in this moment to make some really difficult decisions.”

Kimball said she has spoken to experts, and a four-section elementary school model — meaning schools that have four classrooms for each grade level — is recommended for efficient building capacity. That would equate to between 550 and 600 students in each building. 

Lawrence, though, has historically operated with many smaller elementary schools, which Kimball said is not sustainable. No elementary schools in the district currently have more than 500 students enrolled, and five out of the district’s 13 elementary schools have fewer than 300 students each.

Lewis said eight out of the 13 elementary schools realistically have the capacity to hold between 500 and 600 students, including Deerfield, Hillcrest, Langston Hughes, Prairie Park, Quail Run, Schwegler, Sunflower and Sunset Hill elementary schools. Those schools currently have between 300 and 5o0 students. 

In accordance with the Gannon ruling in the Kansas school finance case, the Kansas Legislature is required to follow the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in 2022-2023, which should result in a funding increase — which has not yet been determined — for next year. 

The Legislature is also required by law to fund special education. If the state fails to fund special education at 92% of excess costs, the Lawrence school district will need to continue pulling money from its general fund, which Lewis said harms all students in the district.

“I think that a misconception has been that when we talk about fully funding special education, some may think ‘Well, I don’t have a student with special needs, so I don’t need to advocate as much,’ but as Shannon indicated, it affects all students,” Lewis said.

Each year, the special education funding from the state has gone down, and this year the Legislature only provided approximately 71% of excess costs to school districts providing special education services, Kimball said. Therefore, the district this year had to transfer approximately $10 million from its general fund to support special education services. 

Lewis said there are currently slightly more than 2,000 students in the district who participate in the Individualized Education Program. Almost 400 of those students are in “gifted programs,” which are also funded under special education. These students must be supported by any means, which puts the district in a tough spot, Lewis said.

Maya Hodison/Lawrence Times Businesspeople and community members gather for a Chamber of Lawrence luncheon on March 8, 2023.

Additionally, current proposed state legislation prioritizes private education and poses a threat to public education, Kimball and Lewis said. 

“We’ve been talking about funding difficulties in our school district, but some of those funding difficulties are actually rooted in things that have been happening or not happening in Topeka over the last decade,” Kimball said.

Senate Bill 83 and House Bill 2218 would create “tax credit scholarships,” which essentially are vouchers families could use to attend private schools. If implemented, the voucher program would allow for $270 million in public tax dollars to be funneled into private schools. The legislation this week has been bundled into one bill with short-term special education funding and spending for teacher salaries.

“In an environment where public schools do not have all of the financial resources that we are entitled to under the law, or that we need to do our jobs, that’s highly concerning,” Kimball said. “What they’re trying to do is tie their private school voucher policy positions to needed funding for public schools.”

Kimball said the biggest issue with that bill lies in the prioritization of private education over public education.

“We have some really wonderful private schools in our community, and we need to have a full range of options available in communities for students because not every student’s needs are the same and not every family’s needs are the same, and my fundamental disagreement is that I think the state needs to do their job by (funding) public schools first and fully before they consider doing anything else,” she said. 

The bill has not yet been passed by the full House and Senate and could ultimately be vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly, who has voiced support for public school funding and has asked the Legislature to fully fund special education. 

“I am hopeful that Governor Kelly vetoes a lot of these bills and holds out for clean funding bills so that we can hopefully sustain the school finance funding under Gannon — hope that we are creating enough momentum around the special education funding that we can get a clean bill that funds additional dollars to special education,” Kimball said. 

“Then what? We gotta get out now for the next session. We have to be talking in between this session and the start of the next session with policymakers across the state about why we need to take different approaches in these issues.”

A community advocacy group sponsored by the Lawrence school board, called Educate Lawrence, is advocating at the state level for Lawrence Public Schools. Lewis and Kimball recommended the public learn more about Educate Lawrence’s work and how to get involved by visiting its Facebook page and the school district’s website.

Kimball also asked Lawrence businesspeople to join efforts to support public education, which she said impacts all facets of this community.

“The governor in a talk that she gave last week to education leaders specifically mentioned that we need to engage our business community and our business community partners to be advocating in Topeka around this issue because they hear from us all the time,” Kimball said. “They hear from people like Dr. Lewis all the time. Her words were, ‘They need to hear from the people who are not getting a paycheck from the districts about how important this issue is to everyone in our community.’ It impacts all students, it impacts workforce readiness, it impacts what we are able to do for kids.”

Lawrence school board members are expected to make final decisions on budget cuts during their Monday, March 27 meeting.

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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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