With a $4 million budget deficit growing to $5 million, the likelihood of school closings seems to be increasing.
As Bob Kidder and other Wakarusa Valley School parents have spent the past months examining the Lawrence school district budget, they say one thing is clear.
The district has too many administrators. Instead of closing any elementary schools, Kidder says, board members should concentrate their cuts at the top as they try to close a $5 million budget gap before next school year.
“I’m not convinced that the people who are dealing with the kids, our teachers, would all of a sudden not be able to perform their jobs,” he said. “I think they would continue to be able to perform their jobs and excel in that.”
Lawrence school board members have heard several pleas not to close schools or make classes much larger, and on Monday they will talk through a lengthy list of proposed budget cuts to try to reach a consensus.
School board President Scott Morgan has already mentioned a scenario of closing Wakarusa Valley and Sunset Hill schools for next year, plus closing the East Heights Early Childhood Center and moving those programs in to New York School, which would become a school for students up to second or third grade.
He says board members likely will have to look at a combination of raising the student-teacher ratio and possibly closing schools because of the severity of the state budget crisis. Otherwise many student support services and programs would need to be cut, he said.
“I don’t think this community wants to go there, so the board has to figure out one or the other,” Morgan said.
Administrators have presented a list of options of $3.6 million in cuts to school programs, district administration and support services like guidance counselors, nurses and librarians.
Several groups, including the Wakarusa Valley budget committee and Save Our Neighborhood Schools, want board members to look at deeper administrative cuts and other savings without closing schools or cutting teaching jobs.
Morgan says the district’s expenses in administration are in line with comparable districts and that the board is already considering plenty of administrative cuts anyway.
$5 million budget shortfall
Major savings proposals
• For each closed elementary school, the school district would save $400,000 to $600,000.
• Increasing the student-teacher ratio by one student across the district saves about $1 million and cuts about 20 teaching jobs. At the first increase, retirements would take care of most of the teaching positions no longer needed.
This option would mean larger elementary classes and fewer courses at secondary schools.
• Administrators also have presented a list of about $3.6 million in school program and administrative cuts and ranked them in four tiers.
• Some groups say board members can cut deeper in other areas, like administrative costs, for savings without closing elementary schools or cutting teaching jobs.
• Board members will talk through all of these proposals and try to reach a consensus on cuts at 7 p.m. Monday at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive. Public comment will follow the board’s discussion.
Kidder has criticized board members for looking too quickly at one option every time the state begins hurting for money. The district last closed three elementaries, Centennial, Riverside and East Heights — when it was an elementary school — in 2003.
Morgan and board member Mary Loveland lost their re-election bids after that decision.
“They’ve taken the budget crisis and used that to close or consolidate elementary schools, which seems to be a theme for some reason,” Kidder said.
He says the district’s expenses have continued to increase every year since 2003. The district can show savings in certain areas because it got rid of certain costs for running those schools, but overall the district’s spending has increased too rapidly up to its $141 million budget for this year, Kidder said.
Morgan, who along with Loveland won a seat on the board again in 2007, said several other factors are in play, such as increased state aid as a result of a major school finance lawsuit that some school districts pursued.
Morgan said because the district’s budget consists of 85 percent personnel costs, board members have found other ways to spend the money saved on the schools such as adding positions and salaries.
“The proof in the savings is in the fact that (the schools) haven’t reopened,” Morgan said.
Long-term budget issues
During their recent budget forums, board members have heard an outcry against closing any schools.
Other parents have voiced concerns about any increase in the student-teacher ratio having a greater effect on the size of classes in the district’s larger schools, including Quail Run, Sunflower and Langston Hughes. Some of those parents say board members should look at things like boundary changes to spread out class sizes if they don’t close schools.
Critics of closing schools say the district is moving too quickly especially as the board is still considering whether to move ninth-graders to the high schools and sixth-graders into junior high.
Board member Vanessa Sanburn said she would like to make cuts this year without closing schools and then have more community input in the next year to study school reconfiguration and the district’s makeup.
Morgan said a major focus of the discussion will center around whether students are affected more by having fewer support services or being moved to a new school because of a closing.
“That’s a legitimate argument that we need to have as to what helps that kid or hurts that kid more,” Morgan said. “And that’s what the board has to struggle with.”