With a $4 million budget deficit growing to $5 million, the likelihood of school closings seems to be increasing.
At least two city commissioners voiced concerns Tuesday to Lawrence school board members about closing elementary schools, a possibility that is on the table as part of the district’s budget crisis.
“My concern here has to do with the fact that these schools, these buildings, are important to the neighborhoods they are in,” said Mike Amyx, a city commissioner.
But during the joint local government session, city and county commissioners mainly asked school board members about the choices they face as the district plans to cut $5 million before next school year because of the dramatic reduction in state aid and rising insurance costs. Commissioners also said board members have a difficult task.
Other than closing schools, board members are weighing a $3 million list that includes cuts to administration, positions such as nurses, counselors and librarians, and school programs. They have also discussed shifting school boundaries to fill up certain school buildings.
Increasing the student-teacher ratio is on the table as well. It would save roughly $1 million at each increase of one student and cut about 20 teaching positions.
City Commissioner Aron Cromwell said that as the economy begins to turn around, board members may want to be careful not to “make changes on a permanent basis when we have a temporary funding gap.”
Craig Weinaug, Douglas County administrator, said a recovery would likely affect the school district more slowly than the city and county because school funding is more reliant on property taxes.
Nancy Thellman, a county commissioner, asked how board members were engaging with community groups that provide budget recommendations. One group, Save Our Neighborhood Schools, has a proposal to save $5 million — without closing schools — through accounting efficiencies and other changes such as reducing the number of administrators at the high schools.
Scott Morgan, the school board’s president, said he has asked administrators to evaluate the plan and tell board members “why it would or would not work.”
Board member Marlene Merrill said the board is already considering some aspects of the group’s plan, such as reorganizing school administrators, and that it has accepted suggestions, such as pursuing private fundraising.
She also said not all of the group’s recommendations are possible under the district’s budget rules. For instance, administrators say the district can save $223,000 if it stops absorbing administrative costs to assist the Lawrence Virtual School, but the Save Our Neighborhood Schools proposal estimates a much higher savings.
In response to a question from Amyx about the district’s 2003 elementary school closings, Morgan and Mary Loveland — who both lost their re-election bids after that move, before returning to the board in 2007 — said they believed that decision created more efficiencies in the district.
After the meeting, Amyx said that as board members wrestle with current cuts, they appear to be investigating how the 2003 closings affected Lawrence and the district.
“History shows us a lot of things,” Amyx said, “and I think the current board has taken that very seriously.”
During the City Commission meeting later, Cromwell and Amyx requested that next week commissioners discuss whether to send a letter to the school district about the importance of neighborhood schools.