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Lawrence school district will likely see more state funding, but other factors complicate budget process

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The Lawrence school district is projecting that an increase to per-pupil funding from the state will add $4 million to next year’s budget, but other factors could offset that increase. 

Unpaid student fees, savings from budget cuts, declining enrollment, recent state legislative action and more are all part of the district’s budget implementation timeline as it approaches the conclusion of its current fiscal year at the end of June.

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Executive Director of Finance Cynde Frick during Monday’s school board meeting reported a review of this year’s finances to narrow down details and a timeline for finalizing the budget.

The school board this year approved a series of cuts, including two elementary school closures, 50 full-time middle and high school teacher position cuts, a switch from MacBooks to iPads for high schoolers and more. Achieving competitive wages for staff has been the board’s top priority fueling budget cuts. The district’s union for classified staff, PAL-CWA, on June 8 tentatively agreed to a $2.12 base raise to hourly wages, equating to about $2.58 million in the district’s budget.

The district currently has cut 48 full-time-equivalent (FTE) employees, which equates to approximately $3.1 million in savings to the budget, Frick said during her presentation. Frick added that closing Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementary schools is tentatively saving the district $693,000 combined. Those savings total approximately $3.8 million.

If the base state aid per pupil increases by $4 million, as the district predicts, savings from budget cuts and the additional base state aid will give the district approximately $7.8 million saved toward next year’s budget.

When examining budgeted enrollment numbers for the upcoming year, Frick said the district can either use the 2022-23 number of full-time equivalency of students – which is a bit lower than the actual headcount of students – or the number from the upcoming year’s enrollment count, scheduled for Sept. 20. Whichever is higher is what the district will choose to utilize, causing the budget to lag behind the enrollment forecast. So far, enrollment for the upcoming year is approximately 29 full-time equivalent students fewer than the previous year, Frick noted. 

Another change in legislation allows districts in which home valuations are higher than the state average by a certain amount to levy higher property taxes, called a cost of living allowance. The change would allow the board to raise property taxes by $1.2 million. Frick said historically the district has taken advantage of that, and she asked board members to start thinking about whether they will want to do so this year.

The district is simultaneously considering other potential hits to its budget.

Frick and board members on Monday expressed concern for the increase in outstanding payments of student fees this year. $527,810 currently remains in unpaid instructional resource fees, participation fees, technology fees, and lost or broken device fees from this year, which is the highest amount of these unpaid fees the district has seen in the last four years.

There is also currently $98,036 in unpaid meal balances, Frick said. Based on the district’s policies and federal food service regulations, up to $75,000 will need to be transferred from the district’s general fund to the food service fund to compensate. 

Looking ahead to the 2024-25 year, the district is predicting an increase to health insurance premiums. If the district’s claims don’t improve, health insurance could cost at least $3 million more than last year. The district also anticipates its property and liability insurance costs will increase $50,000 to $60,000 more than previously expected. 

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New legislation would also potentially allow school board members to start being paid for their service, Frick said.

Board member Kelly Jones said she would be in support of implementing board member pay in the district’s budget because “both our county and city representatives receive a significant allocation for their service and time” and “there are a cost to participating in leadership at the board and for equity purposes when we think about representation at the city and county level.”

Board President Shannon Kimball, however, shared an opposing outlook.

“There are certain political groups in this state that would like to be able to call into question the motives of board members for the advocacy that we do on behalf of students – asking for additional money,” Kimball said. “If we are paid, then they get to dismiss our opinions even more than they already do … My opposition has more to do with how this will be used to damage the advocacy around public schools and funding going forward.”

The Legislature also approved safe and secure school grants that cover security equipment and communication systems. 

Board members must approve their maximum budget for publication on August 14. They will hold a public hearing and approve the 2023-24 budget during their Sept. 11 meeting.

In other business

• CharacterStrong conference cost: As part of the school board’s consent agenda – a list of items that are generally considered routine and approved in one vote – the board on Monday unanimously authorized a conference on a new social emotional learning program. Consultants will be paid $26,000 to lead a two-day conference ahead of districtwide implementation of CharacterStrong, a new social-emotional learning tool.

The contract will be paid with federal Title IV funding, which is intended to “programs that prevent violence and the illegal use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs in and around schools,” according to KSDE. “Schools and districts are to involve parents and coordinate with community efforts in developing these programs. The goal is to foster a safe and healthy learning environment that promotes student academic achievement.”

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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.

Latest Lawrence news:

Kaw Valley Almanac for Dec. 11-17, 2023

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