Welcome to our online chat with Randy Weseman, superintendent of Lawrence's public schools.
The chat took place on Wednesday, February 22, at 1:30 PM and is now closed, but you can read the full transcript on this page.
Moderator: Hello and welcome to today's chat with Supt. Randy Weseman, the top administrator for Lawrence's public schools.
I'm Dave Toplikar, World Online editor, and I'll be moderating today's chat.
Randy, thanks for taking time out of your schedule today to be with us here in the News Center.
We have many questions in the hopper from our readers today.
Supt. Randy Weseman: It's nice to back at the JW. I must have done something right last time I was here.. I have a better chair this trip.
Moderator: To get things started, why don't you tell us a little bit about what you hear about school finance. I understand the Legislature will come out on Thursday with a bill that would provide about $500 million over several years.
Supt. Randy Weseman: I've heard that figure being tossed about also. In reality, the devil lurks in the details. The real question deals with how the money will be distributed. If the legislature follows what I perceive to be the court mandate then money will follow kids designated as at risk, bilingual, and so on. Frankly, this year has been very different in terms of information coming out of Topeka. Your guess is probably as good as mine.
JC Lawrence: What is the relationship between the School system and the District Attorney's office? Mr. Branson said he was approached by both the high schools regarding the open lunch status. Is truancy really that much of an issue to involve prosecution....that is still what the DA does right? If we are not prosecuting truant individuals then what business does the DA's office have with the entire issue? I would figure that the DA has more pressing matters than high school truancy.
Supt. Randy Weseman: Truancy is a problem. However, it is one that tends to be focused on a small percentage of offenders. Our recent contact with the DA's office is an attempt to work towards more consistent enforcement of the truancy law. Responsibility for truancy has been shuffled between the DA and SRS for years. It's not a problem anyone seems anxious to engage.
Jamie Lawrence: Regarding all-day kindergarten...the Olathe district has both all day and 1/2 day kindergarten available at each school. Parents can choose what is best for their child, and pay $40 for 1/2 day or $55 for all day. Is that a possibility that has been considered here?
Anne, Lawrence: What are the factors in the decision to implement full-day kindergarten in the district, and when will a decision be made?
Miranda, Lawrence: Will Lawrence be offering full day kindergarten for the 2006-2007 school year since there is supposed to be funding granted? I have not heard yet and I have a son that should be attending kindergarten next year.
Supt. Randy Weseman: We are preparing a plan for full day K for the board. We will offer several scenarios, one of which will be a fee-based program. Excluding facilities, it would cost around 1.2 million to implement it districtwide. Expensive....but worth it. The research is specific on benefits received v. dollars invested.
A plan, if approved before May, would result in implementation for next year. The will is there...it's a question of finding dollars.
Kathy, Shawnee: Supt. Weseman,
If the Legislature comes through with the money that our schools need, can you tell your patrons how you intend to invest those funds. I believe if patrons know how the money is spent they are much more likely to be advocates in Topeka for school funding. Will class size be reduced? Will teachers receive a pay increase? Thank you for your service to our kids.
Supt. Randy Weseman: Our teacher salaries are not sufficient. A major percent of new money would go into making salaries for Lawrence teachers competitive in the metro area. In addition, full day K and class size are on our radar. We had to cut our limited full day K program four years ago. We need it back, for all kids in Lawrence.
Nicole, Lawrence: I am concerned about the low number of minority teachers throughout the district and would like to know what effort is being put forth to recruit minority teachers?
Supt. Randy Weseman: So are we. In the last two years we have worked with community members to enhance our ability to attract minority teachers to Lawrence. It's a competitive market. As I said in the last post, we must have competitive salaries in order to attract the teachers to whom you refer. We have a part-time recruiter, Willie Amison, working to find and recruit minority teachers.
Bethie: A lot more people are choosing to home school their children, for a variety of reasons. What do think of that trend and do you think it is any reflection on opinions concerning the quality of education received in public schools?
Also we are seeing proposals for "contract teachers" - meaning that each teacher is paid per student or teaching "gig", and in accordance with outcomes. Have you heard of such a thing and if so do you have any opinion on how well a system would work where a teacher earned in accordance with how well his/her students learned?
Supt. Randy Weseman: Home schooling is prolific in Kansas. It is estimated that there are 20,000 or more students in home schools. Our district has always worked with home school families. We allow home schooled students to co-enroll at all levels. Most districts do not. Our virtual school is mostly home schooled students. My philosophy is to work with families and help them become comfortable with public schooling.
I think you are referring to what some call "merit pay" systems. My personal belief is that good work should be rewarded. What gets rewarded gets done; however, the development of such systems has met great opposition with some groups. We have talked about it for Lawrence, but no plan has gained momentum.
Hank, Lawrence: What do you see as the best balance between salaries and buildings within in the school district?
Supt. Randy Weseman: Well...to begin with, money for capital projects, like building a new South, and money for salaries come from two different and legally distinct sources. By statute, a school district may not use capital funds to pay teachers. We have a cap. levy of about 6 mills that funds our building repair and maintenance. 87% of the general fund...(50 million) is used for salaries. The current problem is lack of general fund authority. That is the fund that has been stressed over the last decade. Our building fund, due to a successful bond issue is in good shape.
James-Lawrence: What can be done to attract and retain personnel in areas where there have been long-term vacancies? Specifically, how can the district respond to the Supreme courts' recognition that at-risk and special needs students need more resources?
Supt. Randy Weseman: In one word...."incentives." For example, there is a shortage of special education teachers and we have no mechanism to provide incentives to attract hard-to-find teachers. Regarding the court's mandate, it is up to the local district to make sure the money follows the needs of students. I certainly want to see money used for kids in need.
Susan, Lawrence: When will construction begin on the new South Junior High? Is it still estimated that the project will be completed by the beginning of the 2007-08 school year?
Supt. Randy Weseman: Bids are going out in a few weeks and everything is on schedule for a spring ground breaking. At this point, it appears a 2007-08 completion is on track.
Lori Nation: I would like to know why Lawrence doesn't drop the school bus fees, why not ask for more money for bus services instead of asking for so much money to be spent on education for drugs and alcohol. Kids transportation is more important than drugs and alcohol that is to be taught at home.
Supt. Randy Weseman: I should point out that all money used for drug and alcohol education comes from grants. Grant money is targeted for specific purposes and cannot be used for general fund expenditures. There are very few metro school districts operating without some kind of fee. However, all things being equal, I would like to see the fees go away.
Rich Lawrence: Will the district be selling the portables from South?
Supt. Randy Weseman: We will be using them during construction. However, after building completion give me a call and I'll make you a special deal.
Korianne, Lawrence: Is it possible to begin looking at and addressing the needs of our kids by individual school instead of as a district? For example, some schools may need a full-time counselor and only a part-time social worker or vice versa.
Supt. Randy Weseman: We probably do more of that (site-based) kind of decision-making than most people think. I think it would be in our best interest to allow individual buildings more decision-making about staff. One size does not fit all. We have been discussing this at the administrative level. It does carry some baggage. Often times patrons do not understand why one building has something the other does not. Individual schools would need to involve their communities in the process.
Nick, Lawrence: Mr.Weseman in a faculty meeting over 5 years ago at Free State high school you said your goal was to put Lawrence teachers in the top 3 in the State of Kansas in average salaries. Obviously there has been an issue with not getting much money from the state during that time period, but last year when the district finally got a decent increase the teacher raise was on par or below some of the districts you vowed to catch teachers up with. Was your statement 5 years ago just rhetoric or is it a top goal to put teachers in Lawrence on par with their peers and if so how and when will you get it done?
Supt. Randy Weseman: That is still my goal. Five years ago I did not anticipate such severe underfunding from the state. Also, how you calculate and measure what constitutes salary varies across the state and nation. Is health insurance part of salary? How about early retirement benefits? The short answer is "it is a work in progress." We gave an 8% raise this year and I hope to see this gather momentum. Salaries for teachers have been, and still are a priority for us.
Moderator: That will have to be our last question for the day.
Randy, thanks for being with us today.
Supt. Randy Weseman: It is always a pleasure to respond to questions from our patrons.