Additional SROs, other safety measures still high priorities for Lawrence schools despite low rankings in recent report, officials say

photo by: Ashley Hocking

Lawrence school board President Shannon Kimball addresses a question from the audience at the district's Community Conversation at West Middle School on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. At right is incoming superintendent Anthony Lewis.

In Lawrence, as in much of the country, talk has intensified in recent months around school safety and the various solutions proposed to prevent tragedies like February’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

On Monday, the Lawrence district’s director of finance delivered a report to school board members that, at first glance, seemed to rank some security recommendations — among them the hiring of additional school resource officers — as low priorities in the district’s budget considerations for the upcoming school year. The list, which separated rankings from the school board and the district’s executive leadership team, also indicated that it was district leaders who ranked most safety items in the bottom third, which came as a surprise to some on the board.

But interim Superintendent Anna Stubblefield cautions against taking that report at face value. She said the hiring of SROs, for example, could be covered through a grant program similar to one that funded these positions in Lawrence’s middle schools in the recent past.

“We know and are aware that there are different funding sources out there to get SROs,” Stubblefield said. “So, knowing that, I looked at it from the perspective of what are things we don’t necessarily have a different funding source for that are a priority in that sense? All of these things are important, because that’s how they ended up on the list in the first place.”

Anna Stubblefield

She also said it was district administrators that requested the hiring of additional SROs (or, alternatively, private security staff) for each of the district’s four middle schools. When Stubblefield joined the district 10 years ago as principal of Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, all four of the district’s middle schools had permanently staffed SROs, she said. Middle school SROs were introduced back in 2002 with funding from a federal grant, then reassigned in 2012 as part of then-Police Chief Tarik Khatib’s efforts to streamline the department’s workload and refocus on street patrolling.

Since then, the district has maintained a handful of officers between its two high schools, deploying them to middle schools as needed. In wake of ongoing safety concerns, though, district leaders have been exploring various funding methods that wouldn’t draw from the district’s general fund revenue.

“We know there’s another funding source for that, so maybe that influenced individuals and how they ranked it,” Stubblefield theorized.

Aside from ALICE (active shooter) training, none of the previously discussed safety and security measures showed up in the rankings’ top tier, which came as a surprise to school board President Shannon Kimball at the time. Later, Kimball clarified it was the low prioritization of another item, the creation of a safety supervisor position, that prompted her questions Monday night.

During that meeting, Stubblefield said district staff was considering hiring a safety consultant on a contractual, short-term basis before committing to a full-time, permanent position. The explanation made sense to Kimball.

“It’s more a matter of deciding whether the personnel that we have, is that enough?” Kimball said on Thursday. “And do we need to think about how we use those positions and what they do? Or is it a matter of adding staff?”

Stubblefield also said the disparity between the school board and executive leadership team’s rankings doesn’t wholly represent district leaders’ varying opinions. While board members’ collective scores added up to a higher-priority ranking of 212, for example, the district executives’ totaled a lower-priority ranking of 399. But that doesn’t take into account the fact that the school board has only seven members to the executive leadership team’s nine, Stubblefield pointed out.

The rankings also showed a strong prioritization of the kinds of student support services that feature, along with SROs and security staff, in the district’s multipronged approach to school safety.

“If you look at the top third, there are things that address the social and emotional components,” Stubblefield said, referring to high-ranking priorities like added special education teachers, an equity facilitator and the “Parents as Teachers” program. ” … We don’t have an outside funding source that we can necessarily tap into to address that component.”

Stubblefield and Kimball both said the budget talks were evolving and ongoing, and would depend largely on the state’s new school finance plan. Finance director Kathy Johnson delivered her budget report to board members on Monday barely two hours after news broke that an $80 million error had been discovered in the funding plan.

Originally, the state had 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.

Legislators plan to correct the mistake when they reconvene April 26, though Kimball still worries about the “uncertainty” of it all. Johnson has said the funding error means the district could now see anywhere from $1.7 to $4 million in new money. That leaves a lot of questions for local school districts in the meantime, as they prepare to make budget decisions for the upcoming school year.

Kimball said she’s “supportive” of the safety initiatives being discussed or, in some cases, already implemented in schools. The district’s “multifaceted approach,” she said, combines security staff, mental health support services and facility features such as secure entrances.

There’s no single component that Kimball feels strongly about, she said, at least not in any definitive terms that would label some methods effective and others ineffective.

There’s at least one popular suggestion, by some in the Legislature, that hasn’t been recommended by Lawrence educators as a viable option, however.

“It’s no secret that I personally am very opposed to arming teachers as the answer,” Kimball said. “But again, I’m just one person on the board, and our staff is still evaluating a number of different options.”

The school board plans to discuss budget considerations in greater detail at its next meeting, on April 23.