Some of the budget-cutting suggestions from the Save Our Neighborhood Schools group deserve more serious consideration than they appear to be getting from the Lawrence school board.
Although SOS members say they have received a positive response to their ideas during individual meetings with most school board members, most of those ideas haven’t been included in the list of proposed cuts being formally discussed by the board. The current budget dilemma continues to be portrayed as a choice between closing schools and making drastic cuts in programs. The SOS group and other district patrons believe there are other choices, and it is the board’s responsibility to make sure those options are explored.
One example is the debate over the district’s fund for student materials. Student fees go into the fund to pay for textbooks, workbooks and other materials but those fees don’t cover those expenses so additional money is taken out of the general fund. Because the district currently has saved up almost $1.4 million in that fund, professional accountants who are members of SOS have suggested using only fee money to meet textbook and materials expenses rather than taking money from the general fund.
District administrators have dismissed this idea, saying that most of the $888,000 in the textbook fund is being saved to adopt a new elementary math book. There is, however, another $493,000 in the fund that might be tapped along with the funds that are transferred from the general fund.
District officials are right not to seek a fee increase for students and it’s understandable that they would be cautious about depleting this fund too much, but let’s think outside the box for a minute. Rather than taking money from the general fund this year, why not ask the Lawrence Schools Foundation to spearhead an effort to raise funds for school materials? Such a tangible request seems tailor-made to draw a significant community response.
If the district dug a little deeper in the fund and found it had to delay some purchases of curriculum and technology materials for a year, that still would be preferable to making hasty decisions to close schools for next year. Perhaps there are sound reasons to consider closing a building or two, but that decision should be made in conjunction with the larger reconfiguration plan board members already have approved to move sixth-graders to middle schools and ninth-graders to the district’s two high schools in the fall of 2011.
Once the effects of implementing that plan are analyzed, the board will be in a far better position to consider other changes in school boundaries and building use. Another lesson that should be obvious from the current debate is that the board and school administrators should actively involve community representatives on an advisory committee to help guide those decisions.
A number of other cost-cutting ideas, such as reducing course offerings at the high schools, also deserve board consideration. These ideas are coming from district patrons who have given the issue a lot of thought and deserve a place at the table.
Using short-term solutions to buy a little time is a valid strategy for board members to pursue in the current funding crunch. Drawing down a student materials fund or depending on charitable donations to fund materials purchases probably isn’t a sound long-term policy, but the current situation justifies looking at some stopgap measures.
Lawrence school board members face a difficult task. In some ways putting more creative solutions on the table makes that task more difficult, but giving those ideas serious consideration will produce a better result for the community.