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Lawrence schools concerned about their own ‘fiscal cliff’

Concerns about the possibility of drastic budget cuts in the not-too-distant future are weighing heavily on the Lawrence Board of Education, but board president Vanessa Sanburn says she is still committed to seeking voter approval of a large bond issue in the spring.

"I believe that we owe it to the students and staff in Lawrence Public schools to improve our facilities and bring them up to 21st century standards to enhance learning, regardless of the state budget forecast," Sanburn said in an email Tuesday. "These facilities will bring enhancements to the schools that last for future generations."

Strictly speaking, there is no connection between the "general fund" aid that Lawrence gets from the state and the district's ability to repay bonds. Local districts in Kansas have authority to levy separate taxes for bond and interest payments, and that money flows into a completely different pot from the one that pays for day-to-day operations.

Nevertheless, a few board members expressed concern Monday night about what you might call the "optics" of a situation that could occur, where the district is spending millions of dollars to upgrade and expand school facilities while, at the same time, making deep cuts in school programs.

The cause of much of that concern traces back to the multibillion-dollar tax cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature approved this year. Official projections show those will cost the state about a billion dollars over the next year and a half. And since K-12 education makes up roughly half the state general fund budget, many people are anticipating deep and possibly permanent cuts in school funding.

For his part, Brownback remains confident the tax cuts will spur job creation and economic growth that, in turn, will result in tax revenues flowing back to the state, at least partially offsetting the cost of the tax cuts. In the meantime, he has vowed to "protect" education funding, which some people point out is not exactly the same as vowing "not to cut" education funding.

Meanwhile, the clouds looming on the fiscal horizon are coloring all kinds of discussions at the school board in addition to plans for the upcoming bond issue.

Also during Monday night's meeting, the board approved a contract with Gallup, a human resources consulting firm, to use its online tool TeacherInsight that's intended to improve the district's recruitment, interviewing and hiring of new teachers.

But district staff recommended only a one-year contract, instead of the original idea of three years. Superintendent Rick Doll said that was mainly because of concerns the district may soon have to go into budget-cutting mode again, and he would rather not get into a long-term contract that may ultimately have to be cut anyway.

Another indication of the board's concerns came during a discussion about the role of the district's Financial Advisory Council. That's a group the board formed last year, in the wake of the last round of budget slashing, to help advise the board about financial options and best management practices.

The point of the discussion was to get a clearer idea of what the board wants from that council and how the council is supposed to communicate its ideas with the board. But the overall tone was mainly about the looming fiscal challenges — or at least the board's perception of one.

As a few board members said, though, it would be preferable to have some kind of plan in place before any financial storm comes than to wait and be forced into making hasty decisions.

The public may get a clearer idea of how far districts will have to cut in the next year, if they have to cut at all, when Brownback delivers his next budget message to the Legislature in January.


Peter Hancock can be reached at 832-7259, or by email: phancock@ljworld.com.

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