Error in Kansas Legislature’s school finance plan complicates budget decisions for Lawrence school board

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence Public Schools district offices, 110 McDonald Drive.

The Lawrence school district could see anywhere from $1.7 million to $4 million in additional funding from the Kansas Legislature’s newly passed school finance plan.

That’s according to figures provided by Kathy Johnson, the district’s executive director of finance, during Monday’s school board meeting. Johnson’s report to board members came just hours after the Kansas State Department of Education’s revelation Monday evening that an $80 million error had been discovered in the new school finance plan.

Originally, the KSDE estimated that the bill would provide the Lawrence district with an additional $3.5 million in funding. Statewide, the finance plan was supposed to have added about $525 million in funding for public schools over the next five years.

“This introduces a great deal of uncertainty into this conversation,” school board president Shannon Kimball said of the last-minute Statehouse news. ” … Let’s just be honest — the way that that played out was the opposite of a master class in leadership skills. That makes this exercise really difficult in terms of committing to hiring for the next year.”

Final details still pending, Johnson presented the school board Monday with a list of budget considerations submitted by staff. The rankings include nearly 60 items prioritized by school board members and the district’s nine-person executive leadership team.

“It’s really just a vehicle to try to get some discussion on the table, get some idea of where people stand and maybe more information,” Johnson said. “So, as we continue to build on this, we can come up with a solution that will be effective when we get ready to put some money to it.”

Last month, the school board allowed staff to begin advertising for three elementary school counselor positions, but told them to defer all hirings until the Legislature’s decision on funding for the 2018-2019 school year. Other priorities discussed at the time included an equity facilitator, curriculum facilitators, kindergarten and first-grade teachers, and security personnel.

Kimball said she was “surprised” by Johnson’s rankings, which blended scoring input from school board members and the executive leadership team. Aside from ALICE (active shooter) training, none of the safety-related items discussed in previous conversations turned up in the rankings’ top tier, she said.

Previous suggestions to hire additional school resource officers and/or security personnel, as well as the hiring of a life safety supervisor, were low on the executive leadership team’s list of priorities. That came as a surprise to school board member Kelly Jones, too, because she was under the impression that the measures were high priorities for everyone involved.

“I appreciate that we separated out where the board is at versus where the executive team is at,” Jones said. “And I’m really looking forward to hearing the context behind what we missed, where we had misinterpretation.”

Other items to make the list’s top tier included hiring special education teachers, an equity facilitator, speech language pathologist and increasing fringe benefits by more than $1 million. The middle tier included hiring curriculum facilitators, learning coaches, a registered nurse and other student-support positions.

Among the bottom third of priorities: hiring a restorative justice coordinator for Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, appointing a dean of students for each of the district’s four middle schools, and the hiring of additional SROs and security personnel.

The board will discuss priorities in more detail at its next meeting on April 23. The Legislature should be able to pass a “technical” correction to its $80 million error when it meets April 26, Johnson said.