Near the end of the Lawrence school board’s budget hearing Monday night at Central Junior High, an audience member yelled out.
She asked everyone who didn’t want board members to close schools to stand up. Nearly all of the 120 people in the auditorium came to their feet.
“We are the voice of Lawrence,” a man shouted.
Board members faced many questions and impassioned speeches from parents — including members of Save Our Neighborhood Schools and Wakarusa Valley School parents — urging them not to close schools as the district seeks to cut $5 million before next school year, mostly due to the state budget crisis.
Several speakers said closing schools would harm neighborhoods, and they said board members should cut administrative costs and even certain school programs until the economy turns around.
“While I feel like all of these extras are very, very important, they are things that, frankly, I went to a small-town school, and we didn’t have,” said Karen Ledom, a Wakarusa Valley parent.
School board members have received a list of about $3 million in administrative and program cuts, such as librarians, guidance counselors and nurses. They have also heard that the district could save about $1 million and cut about 20 teaching jobs each time it raised the student-teacher ratio by one student, which would create larger elementary class sizes and fewer courses for junior high and high school classes.
The district could save between $400,000 to $600,000 for every elementary school it closes. Board President Scott Morgan last week mentioned a scenario that included closing Sunset Hill next year, and temporarily closing Wakarusa Valley until the district grew to the south in future years.
“My concern is we’re making permanent changes to solve a temporary problem,” said Robert Parsons, a Wakarusa Valley parent and Kansas University civil engineering professor.
A majority of board members have said they were willing to at least consider closing schools for savings, but they also said the board shouldn’t talk about specific schools at this point.
Board member Rich Minder wants to find a way for savings without closing neighborhood elementary schools. He received the loudest applause from the audience during the forum. He said an expert told him that smaller class sizes are only important for children from low-income families when they are in earlier elementary grades.
“Can we give a little so that one group doesn’t have to make undue sacrifices?” he said.
In one exchange, board member Mark Bradford asked audience members to hold their applause during the forum because it took time away from speakers. In response, several members of the crowd clapped again.
Bradford said he worried that if the district severely cut other services to keep all schools open that it could affect academic performance.
“I caution that that’s really what we want to do,” he said. “That’s what I’m hearing, but I caution us on that decision.”
Finding the right balance
Board member Mary Loveland mentioned the district should have a commission look at the district’s elementary school space.
Marlene Merrill said the board’s cuts would likely be a balance of several options. She is uncomfortable with cutting too deeply into positions such as guidance counselors and nurses.
“To me those are health and safety issues and an integral part of education,” she said.
But several audience members said board members should take school closings off the table for now and cut spending in other areas.
“When you close a school, you are sending 100 to 200 kids to be the new kid in school,” said Nancy Hamilton, a Hillcrest parent.
The final budget forum is at 7:30 p.m. today at the West Junior High School auditorium, 2700 Harvard Road. Board members have said they would like to reach more specific decisions about cuts by the end of the month.