School Board meeting updates
Contentious budget talks ended abruptly Tuesday night as Lawrence school board members approved a plan to bridge the district’s $5 million budget gap for next year without closing any elementary schools.
The 11th-hour compromise surprised a group of parents and community members who went into the meeting facing the possibility that four board members could vote to close schools.
The deal the board ended up unanimously adopting came from board President Scott Morgan, who two weeks ago proposed closing Wakarusa Valley and Sunset Hill schools for savings.
“At some point my position is irrelevant just like any other board member,” Morgan said. “It’s about what four of us would want to do, and the best is if we can find consensus with seven of us.”
Morgan said he stayed up until 4 a.m. Tuesday focusing on the new scenario and trying to read what other board members would agree to.
Just hours before, board members had made $3.2 million in school program and administrative cuts during a four-hour meeting Monday. Board members recessed their session until Tuesday night when they were supposed to discuss closing schools and increasing the student-teacher ratio.
Instead, at the start of the Tuesday’s meeting Morgan proposed the plan that would keep all elementary schools open for next school year.
“I think everybody in the community will be a little bit surprised with how this was resolved, but I think once you understand the kinds of cross-cutting pressures that the board was under, I think it makes sense,” said Chuck Epp, a member of Save Our Neighborhood Schools. “I think it is a healthy compromise for the community.”
The East Heights Early Childhood Center will close. Its pre-kindergarten programs will likely move to Kennedy School.
The board will need to decide on a boundary change between Kennedy and New York schools, but Morgan said the district will work with those neighborhoods on developing a plan. The district will also appoint a community task force to review the district’s older facilities and see what future improvements can be made.
Other savings in the plan include increasing the student-teacher ratio by one student, which saves $1.1 million. It cuts about 20 teaching jobs, but the district’s number of retiring teachers will balance most of those out.
Budget cut breakdown
Check out the list of cuts the school board will be making.
Band cut restored
The plan was not all well-received because it involves a $43,520 cut to restructure school nurses. Board member Marlene Merrill proposed an amendment to strip that cut from the plan, but it failed, 4-3.
One development from Monday’s cuts played a major part in Tuesday’s compromise. Board members had cut sixth-grade instrumental music programs to save $295,000, and a large group of high school band students and parents showed up at the Tuesday meeting to protest.
Band members played in the parking lot, and they also filled the hallway during the meeting and held up various music trophies. Parents and band members feared the sixth-grade cuts would cause a ripple effect because the teachers who were reassigned would possibly have seniority over both high school band directors, causing them to lose their jobs.
Morgan, who did not support the band cut Monday, included restoring the sixth-grade band cut as part of his compromise that ultimately passed.
“I think it does show that the board has a mind for fine arts, and certainly we see that as an important part of the education in our city,” said Terry Jacobsen, co-president of the Lawrence High School band parents organization.
After weeks of tense meetings and forums, board members were able to make at least two large groups of people happy Tuesday night, but they said the district may not be out of the woods yet. If the state’s budget picture worsens, the district could be looking at having to cut more than the $5 million gap they closed.
“What this does tonight, what we did — assuming the Legislature does remotely part of its job — we are ready to go in to next year with a balanced budget,” Morgan said.