Lawrence school district looks to staffing incentives, other cost-saving ideas as enrollment declines

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As enrollment keeps trending downward, Lawrence school board members on Monday heard some additional details about possible ways to cut costs, including hiring specialized positions rather than going through contractors.

Executive Director of Finance Cynde Frick gave the board a budget update on Monday, which included data from the district’s annual enrollment headcount, taken every Sept. 20. The district counted 9,820 students enrolled for the 2023-24 year, down 135 from the 9,955 total for 2022-23, according to the presentation.

Frick said the district could consider incentives to hire speech language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, plumbers, carpenters and other professionals as district employees rather than filling those positions through contractors.

She said although those positions are already established on salary matrices, the district has struggled to fill them in-house because it doesn’t offer competitive wages, but that it would cost less than using contractors.

“We haven’t quantified the trades section of that yet, but I’m expecting it will be millions of dollars,” Frick said. “And so the question is how to make it happen. We will need support and cooperation from our unions to figure this out. But there is money there to be saved.”

Enrollment is projected to continue decreasing each year through 2027-28. State funding to schools is on a per-pupil basis, so even as the amount of funding per student increases, the increase could be offset by continuing enrollment declines.

Frick told the board she doesn’t have information on who is leaving the district and their reasons for leaving.

Board Past President Shannon Kimball said public scrutiny of the district for its declining enrollment is unfair as birth rates are also declining in Douglas County and statewide.

“Yes, some families have left to go to other districts,” Kimball said. “We’ve had families come into this district from other districts — it goes both ways. And it is not accurate to cast aspersions on USD 497 because we are experiencing what is actually a nationwide trend in declining birth rates and therefore a decline in K-12 enrollment.”

Superintendent Anthony Lewis said Monday that the district currently has 875 high school seniors and 692 kindergarteners enrolled. Last year, it had 944 seniors and 674 kindergarteners.

The district has used about $21 million in ESSER funds — federal COVID-19 relief dollars — in numerous ways over the past few years, including summer school for some students, staff retention payments, pay increases for substitute teachers, platforms to conduct staff surveys, and CharacterStrong social-emotional curriculum. The district has also hired some nursing positions through a separate Kansas Department of Health and Environment grant.

But ESSER funds are running out as the district will have spent them all by this September.

“That is a lot of money that we are losing going into next year,” Frick said.

The district could see an increase in special education funding from the state. Administrators, board members and advocates statewide have called for the Legislature to fully fund special education. Frick said the district could see an estimated $1.9 million in additional SPED funds. However, Kimball said the bill the Legislature is considering has a lot of “strings attached,” and “creates — for lack of a nicer way to say it — an ill-conceived experiment on some of our most vulnerable kids.”

As another potential way to save on costs, the district is considering implementing solar energy — as is currently being piloted at Prairie Park Elementary School — to reduce energy costs. Converting to LED from fluorescent lighting in buildings could also save energy costs. Chief Operations Officer Larry Engelbrick on Monday said the LED light pilot program at Deerfield Elementary School last summer resulted in $2,500 to $3,000 in savings there.

Selling some real property to reduce property insurance costs could also be an option for the district.

The school board made numerous budget cuts last spring — including closing Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementary schools and cutting 50 teaching positions — in order to pay for staff raises and increase the budget of the district’s contingency reserve fund. 

Data in Monday’s presentation shows the fund’s balance increased by more than $1.5 million, to $2.64 million from $1.12 million, as of June 30, 2023. Administrators are recommending the board add $4.88 million more. Frick said the district is depositing interest income into the contingency fund.

The board did not take any action on the presentation Monday.

In other business

• Two additional administrators hired: Lewis and Jones on Monday defended the district’s hiring of two additional administrative positions.

School board members approved Jayci Roberson and Waymond Ervin as the district’s director of elementary schools and director of secondary schools, respectively, as part of their consent agenda Monday. (Read more in this article.)

The next scheduled board meeting has been rescheduled from 6 p.m. Monday, April 8 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 10. Four board members will be traveling back from the National School Boards Association’s Annual Conference and Exposition on April 8. 

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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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