Lawrence Public Schools’ enrollment has dropped for four straight years. Where the students went is unknown. 

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Note: This story is part one of a series using data to evaluate Lawrence Public Schools enrollment, staff pay and budgets. The Times examined hundreds of Kansas Department of Education budget documents from school districts across Kansas. Read more from the series at this link.

When COVID-19 hit schools in 2020, public school enrollment across the state dropped. In Lawrence, though, the drop has largely persisted. 

As families around the state shifted away from public schools — many because of political controversy or safety concerns — most districts saw a percentage decrease in enrollment between 1% and 5%. 

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But most districts rebounded. All of the 10 largest districts saw their enrollment drop during the pandemic-riddled 2020-21 school year; all but Lawrence have bounced back to see some enrollment growth in the last few years.

In Lawrence, the 2019-20 school year started a chain of four straight years with enrollment declines. That has slashed funding for Lawrence Public Schools, which is based primarily on per-pupil aid from the state. Lawrence is the seventh-largest district in the state.

Lena Batt

“That was shocking seeing that [enrollment drop],” said Lena Batt, a professor for the University of Kansas’ Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. “Like, I’d heard, but I didn’t realize it was that bad compared to everyone else. That was shocking.”

School officials have cited declining birth rates as a cause for enrollment decline. But data shows that Lawrence has struggled more than its peers with rebounding after COVID. 

During his State of Schools address in the fall, Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Lewis addressed the declining enrollment, citing birth rates and smaller incoming classes. He emphasized the need to find ways to attract families to Lawrence and ensure quality programs across the district. 

“This is something that’s certainly not new to Lawrence public schools,” Lewis said during the speech. “We take a look at our 20-year enrollment history, there has been some peaks and valleys and ups and downs along the way.”

Nationwide, enrollment in public schools dropped by more than 1.2 million students. Where the students went is almost entirely unknown. Because private schools, home schools and other non-public schools usually are not regulated by the state, it is unknown how many students have switched from public schools to those alternative models. 

A national study by Stanford University, the Associated Press and Big Local News investigated state-level data on students who left public schools during the pandemic. The study found large numbers of students shifted to private or home schools during the pandemic. Still, an even larger number of students were unaccounted for in any available data. 

In Lawrence, Veritas Christian School, a private religious school, has seen its enrollment grow steadily since COVID-19, according to an email from Administrative Assistant Linda Walton. But that growth accounts for only a handful of students. Walton said the fall enrollment for the private school was just 222 students.

Bishop Seabury, another local private school, does not release enrollment numbers, but Director of Admissions Lisa Leroux-Smith said in an email that enrollment at the school declined during COVID-19 and Seabury is working to return to pre-pandemic enrollment levels. This decline is corroborated by athletics data, which shows a 30% decrease in students in grades 9 through 12 since 2018-19. 

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“The reasons for shifts in enrollment are likely as unique and varied as school families and how they were personally affected by the pandemic,” Lawrence school district spokesperson Julie Boyle said. 

Even as enrollment has started to stabilize after COVID-19, many families are still grappling with their future in the district after school closures last year. Melody Alexander, whose kids used to attend Pinckney Elementary, said she feels like the school district continues to take away from her two children, who are in fifth and first grade. 

“They’ve experienced constant loss because of this district’s leadership,” she said. “And for us, we’re now mulling over how much more of this district’s shortcomings we should force our children to experience.”

Alexander said she knows multiple families, many of which were directly impacted by school closures, have expressed to her their growing desire to leave the district. 

“But it feels like this is a turning point for me,” she said. “I’m not sure how much more we can handle from this district. I am fully expecting recent decisions from this district to turn even more families away because we have completely lost faith in the people at the top.”

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‘There was no cushion’: Enrollment drop sparked multiple rounds of budget cuts

The large enrollment drop sparked two years of budget cuts and ensuing debates in Lawrence.

During the 2021-22 school year, cuts solved a multimillion-dollar deficit caused by a sharp decrease in enrollment following the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as rising utility and building costs. 

Last year, the district made millions more in cuts, this time to achieve goals outlined by the school board, including raising staff wages and building up reserve funds. Both sets of cuts led to impassioned public reactions about school closures, staff cuts and district priorities as a whole.

“Regardless of why it happened, enrollment is a huge part of this and some of the other things that I think are going on,” Batt said. 

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USD 497 has tried to soften the blow. The district used a state provision that allows it to submit the highest enrollment of the previous two years for funding. As a result, Lawrence has been able to use pre-drop numbers for state funding even after enrollment declined. The district still was required to report accurate enrollment numbers to the state but could garner additional funding because of the provision. 

Still, the 2020-21 enrollment drop added to a perfect storm ready to wreak havoc on the district’s budget. 

During a 2022 school board meeting, school board member Shannon Kimball explained past decisions at the state and local level that made Lawrence’s enrollment decline even more damaging to the district’s budget. 

When the district made budget cuts in 2021-22, it was reeling from scarce education funding during Sam Brownback’s term as Kansas governor.  

“I hope we can all agree that education as a whole has been underserved for decades,” Lawrence Education Association President Emerson Hoffzales said. They said this causes “every position to get weighed down with mountains of expectations.” 

As education funding in Kansas shrank due to inflation, many districts made cuts, but Lawrence used reserve funds to sustain operations and provide staff with annual raises. The district made its decisions with the expectation that funding and enrollment would grow. But neither did.

When enrollment started to fall gradually before COVID-19, the district budget was already struggling due to rising costs, underfunding from Topeka and depleted reserve funds.

Then enrollment tumbled during COVID-19. 

“When all of a sudden you’ve lost so much enrollment, which is what everything is dependent upon, there was no cushion,” Batt said.

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The district did not make cuts during the Brownback administration when other districts did. Instead, it spent down its reserve funds. This strategy ultimately forced Lawrence Public Schools to make deep cuts to try and balance the budget. 

The district has used approximately $21 million in ESSER funds — federal COVID-19 relief dollars — for various purposes including summer school, pay increases and social-emotional curriculum. However, these funds are running out, heightening financial challenges for the upcoming school year. 

Additionally, the district could receive increased special education funding from the state, but concerns exist regarding potential strings attached to the funding. To mitigate costs, the district is exploring options such as implementing solar energy, converting lighting systems and selling real property. 

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Enrollment is projected to continue decreasing each year through 2027-28. Because state funding to schools is on a per-pupil basis, state funding increases could be offset by enrollment declines.

Moving forward, Hoffzales and others agreed the same multitude of factors that likely led to the enrollment drop will continue to affect future enrollment and the funding that comes with it in Lawrence.

Hoffzales said cost of living, state funding and legislation on student enrollment all can reshape enrollment across the state, such as a new open enrollment provision adopted by the Kansas Legislature that takes effect next year.

How the district responds to the changing environment will shape the district’s funds for the foreseeable future.

“As long as our school board and district administration uphold priorities that focus on educators and their working conditions, it will support students and their learning conditions,” Hoffzales said. 

But Alexander and other parents say the district’s recent cuts haven’t lived up to those needs. They worry that the school closures and cuts will only encourage more families to leave, creating even more budget problems in the future.

“The amount of people that I heard that have given up on the district and who are moving, who are leaving Lawrence,” Alexander said. “I mean, I can’t even tell you how many people I talked to who just were like, ‘I’m selling my house and leaving because I can’t do this anymore.’” 

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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.

More from this series:

Lawrence Public Schools’ enrollment has dropped for four straight years. Where the students went is unknown. 

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All of the 10 largest districts in Kansas saw their enrollment drop during the pandemic-riddled 2020-21 school year; all but Lawrence have bounced back to see some enrollment growth in the last few years.

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Kaw Valley Almanac for April 22-28, 2024

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