Archive for Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Board devises hit list

Majority endorses special-ed cuts, pay-to-play sports, pay-to-ride busing

February 20, 2002


Lawrence Supt. Randy Weseman presided Tuesday at an extraordinary school board meeting that set in motion establishment of a pay-to-play plan for all sports and extracurricular activities and a pay-to-ride bus system.

Nearly $3 million in revenue enhancements and spending reductions were embraced by a majority of members during a three-hour study session that was more fast-paced auction of sacred cows than plodding academic proceeding.

"That's pretty good for one night's work," Weseman said. "I'm proud of what this board did."

This budget blueprint is not final; more fine-tuning will take place Monday at a regular board meeting.

During Tuesday's jaw-dropping, priority-setting meeting, board members took off the table a proposal that would have saved the district $518,000 by increasing elementary class sizes. They also jettisoned a recommendation to limit high school students to six classes each semester rather than the current seven.

A pay-to-play fee for sports and extracurricular activities possibly $40 per activity at junior highs and $60 each at high schools might save junior high cheerleading, ninth-grade sports programs and other cherished activities previously targeted for elimination.

"We can produce some significant money with pay-to-play," Weseman said.

However, board member Jack Davidson said the number of students involved in these activities could plummet.

"You're going to lose a certain number of kids," he said. "I'm concerned about those numbers."

A pay-to-ride transportation system would maintain free rides only for poor children and those living at least 2.5 miles from school. Approximately 1,800 students below that state-mandated threshold would be eligible to ride a bus if they paid a fee that has yet to be determined. There was no prevision to give children who live near dangerous intersections free bus rides if their homes are closer than 2.5 miles from their school.

Faculty, staff cuts likely

While a precise headcount wasn't known, the board also intends to cut jobs. The hit list includes counselors, nurses, music teachers, secretaries, gifted instructors, foreign language faculty and a psychologist. All-day kindergarten programs at five elementary schools will be dropped unless students' parents can pay fees to cover half the cost of those programs.

It's possible the district will dramatically increase student fees for textbook rental and field trips, while also enacting a technology fee.

The board also will green-light at least $300,000 in cuts to the district's special-education budget.

District teachers and administrators have been scrutinizing the budget for months, but Monday was the first time the school board put its collective shoulder behind a package of adjustments.

Finding $5 million

"Our backs are against the wall," said Sue Morgan, board president. "We're not taking any of these programs lightly ... but we find ourselves in a position of having to cut something."

The school board is striving to identify $5 million from all sources that could be spent on teacher salaries, staff health insurance benefits and rising operating expenses. Their assumption is the 2002 Legislature will significantly reduce state funding to public school districts. Only through internal reallocation can the district address high-priority needs, Weseman said.

"The problem is I don't think we're anywhere near $5 million," Morgan said.

Once the school board settles on the $3 million in cuts and revenue enhancements, Weseman said he would draft a recommendation for the remaining $2 million.

Wayne Kruse, president of the union representing 950 Lawrence teachers and other certified staff, said it was disturbing that some of his colleagues would lose their jobs. At the same time, he said he was grateful work was being done to provide salary increases to staff without devastating the academic integrity of classrooms.

"They've done a great job in saying, 'How do we protect student achievement?'" Kruse said.

About 75 people in the standing-room-only crowd first listened to presentations from district committees and groups that assessed possible budget reforms. Afterward, Weseman stood in front of the board and pulled from them the series of budget commitments.

The package will be fine-tuned and presented to the board Monday during a meeting at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive.

Special education funds slashed

Decisions about staffing have to be made as soon as possible, said Mary Rodriguez, the district's executive director of human resources. Some teachers need to know if they should apply for jobs in other districts, she said.

"We have some anxious staff," Rodriguez said. "I don't want to lose staff because of that."

Of course, there's more budget-cutting on the horizon.

Several board members believe the district's $3 million general-fund subsidy to special education needs to further reduced. The district's special education budget is about $13 million annually, with the balance coming from state and federal sources.

Morgan said $300,000 identified so far was insufficient.

"I have a hard time thinking there isn't more than that in special education," Morgan said.

Doug Eicher, the district's executive director of special services, offered $300,000 in reductions to special education. Several teachers, paraprofessionals and a psychologist's job will be eliminated.

In addition, $140,000 earmarked for a highly regarded program serving at-risk children will be cut. The program, known as WRAP, also was targeted for elimination by the district's secondary school principals.

"We all seem to be picking on WRAP," Eicher said. "It is something I'd like to keep."

David Johnson, chief executive officer of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said the WRAP program had now suffered a loss of $600,000 in federal funding and $140,000 from the school district.

"This program, everybody agrees, has made a huge difference in the schools," he said. "To keep it going, we're going to have to look at somebody like the county stepping forward."

Preserving academic integrity

Mick Lowe, principal of West Junior High School, said the goal must be to preserve class sizes in core subjects at secondary schools. If prized after-school activities and supplemental programs must be sacrificed to maintain the academic integrity of classrooms, so be it.

"If the only way to keep them is to stack 35 kids in a class, we don't want to keep them," Lowe said.

Although it's possible a pay-to-participate system may save junior high school cheerleading, at least one cheer coach said Lowe and his peers were on the right track.

Susan Phenix, a math teacher at Central Junior High School, has been involved with cheerleading for 15 years. Three dozen students at Central are part of her cheer program.

"I believe in it," she said in an interview. "It's an important extracurricular activity, but it is extra. Faced with a budget crisis that the district is facing, I really understand the junior high principals' decision to put it on the list."

Scott Morgan, the board's vice president, said the district's budget woes cried out for serious consideration of school consolidation. However, he said, the timing wasn't right to vote on closing elementary schools.

The hitch is the board promised the community that decisions about the future of district schools would be based on recommendations contained in a facilities study now being conducted by DLR Group of Overland Park.

"We can't do anything like that without compromising the process," Sue Morgan said.

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