Sure, it’s a long shot. A prayer.
But hey, all this talk of a new school financing formula is giving players on educational rosters — especially those on the sidelines in Lawrence — something they haven’t had in a while: a chance.
“We’re all people who, in their core, believe deeply in their schools and don’t want to see them close,” said David Unekis, a Pinckney School parent serving on a group advising the Lawrence school board about consolidation options. “We all have that in the back of our minds: Maybe there’s a way — as we dig into the data, and dig into the numbers — that we can find a Hail Mary pass to get us out of this.
“And that possibility is a lot more likely with the state-finance stuff going on.”
That “stuff” involves an unwritten playbook making the rounds this month, as state officials prepare for the January kickoff of the 2012 session of the Kansas Legislature.
Among the plays being drawn up:
• Reduce the amount of property tax collected by the state for redistribution to school districts, envisioning a tax rate that would decrease anywhere from 25 to 50 percent.
• Allow districts to make up the difference using local property taxes, revenues that could be retained within individual districts — instead of being sent to Topeka and then redistributed to other districts — and spent as local school boards see fit.
• Permit counties to charge increased sales taxes for education, with half of the money going into a shared pool to be shared with other participating districts and the other half staying within districts in the county.
Such possibilities are giving folks on the Lawrence school district’s Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group hope that there might be a way for the district to avoid following through with its stated intention: Close two or three elementary schools within two to three years, and pursue approval of a bond issue that would upgrade and expand remaining schools to handle a redistributed and more efficient enrollment load.
That’s been the plan since February, when members of another advisory task force could foresee no other way to make ends meet after the district announced plans to cut $3 million from the 2011-12 budget. That had come after the district already had cut $3.4 million from the previous year’s budget to go along with other cuts mounting since the Great Recession had begun.
But now, after Gov. Sam Brownback’s policy director started briefing educators about potential changes to the state’s financing formula, members of the district’s working group are sensing a glimmer of hope — even if it comes from perhaps the most unlikely of sources.
“Again, it’s Brownback,” said Unekis, a member of the working group’s liaison committee to the school board. “I don’t want to get my hopes too high.”
It’s still early.
Rick Doll, district superintendent, listened this month as Brownback policy director Landon Fulmer outlined the governor’s preliminary game plan for education. Yes, local districts would get more control of their finances. At-risk and other needs could be addressed with a block-grant program. Districts could be assured of receiving a base level of funding from the state.
But the discussion came with no specific numbers, ones that would indicate whether the Lawrence district would end up with more money, the same money or, in a worst-case scenario, less money with no hope to recoup continued losses.
“I’m skeptical,” Doll said, “whether hidden in this plan is a desire to decrease overall funding,”
The district already has spent recent years increasing class sizes, cutting programs, eliminating staff positions and furloughing employees to make ends meet. The district closed Wakarusa Valley School at the end of the past school year and embarked on a course to close either two or three more schools from a list of six candidates: Cordley, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill.
Representatives from each of those school communities, plus Woodlawn School, have been meeting for more than two months as a working group to devise a plan that could close schools while still preserving the district’s abilities to provide the best education possible.
At issue is the very structure of school finance in Kansas: The state collects property taxes and then returns money to districts to operate their schools, so that all students are assured of receiving an equitable education regardless of whether they live in a “rich” or “poor” district. Individual districts are able to charge extra taxes for their own use, through a “local option budget” capped at 31 percent of the district’s general fund, the one financed by the state.
The Lawrence district, like many others, has maxed out its local option budget and has few options to raise money to offset state cuts. So the district has pursued closing smaller elementary schools, a plan that would reduce the number of principals, office staff, librarians, custodians and others assigned to particular buildings — generating operational savings that then could be used to cover losses and finance programs considered effective, such as all-day kindergarten.
‘Back to the drawing board’
Closing schools would mean sending displaced students into other schools with available space, or by expanding smaller schools so that they would be large enough to accommodate a full lineup of staffers and programs. The district even could consider building a new school or two.
Such upgrades would be financed by passage of a bond issue — millions of dollars approved by voters for renovations, expansions or new-construction projects. Or the district could use money already available for major maintenance and related projects.
Either way, that money would not be limited by the state. And as previous bond issues expire during the next several years, district leaders foresee creating a plan that would keep property taxes stable — or even decline — while generating additional money to get projects done. The upgrades and expansions, then, would free up operational money to pay teachers, restore programs and otherwise bolster staff and other initiatives.
Such thinking is the vision behind the working group, but its members increasingly worry about the alternative: What happens if voters reject a bond issue? Do schools still close?
“I don’t think that consolidation is necessarily the answer to what’s facing our district,” said Leslie Newman, a member representing Hillcrest, where she has a child in school. “We need to go back to the drawing board and get creative.”
Board members are scheduled to embark on such discussions Monday night, during their meeting that starts at 7 p.m. at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive.
Unekis and other members of the working group’s liaison committee will be addressing the board, seeking guidance on where to go as they approach their end-of-January deadline for making recommendations regarding consolidation.
Keith Diaz Moore, a board member who regularly attends meetings of the working group, is confident they are the right folks for the job.
“These are the right people and represent the right groups to be involved in this process,” Diaz Moore said.
The roster is filled with people looking for solutions, whether it’s thinking about magnet schools or wondering if there might be another budgetary approach to make ends meet. People like Unekis, who supports following through and devising a plan for consolidation but holding out hope — however slight — that Brownback’s plan could help keep all Lawrence schools open and bolster programs and teaching without requiring a bond issue.
“Then it’s a win for everybody,” Unekis said, envisioning the best-case scenario while acknowledging its inherent uncertainty. “It’s certainly better to have the ball and throwing the Hail Mary, rather than not even being on the field.”