Lawrence school board says budget cuts set for now, but more may loom

Members of the Lawrence school board don’t intend to boost class sizes districtwide, or to cut entire sports programs, or to eliminate jobs for guidance counselors, school nurses or attendance secretaries.

At least not yet.

As plans for next year’s Lawrence school district budget take shape, virtually all of this year’s job positions, programs and services are set to continue.

But board members and administrators acknowledge that while an already-agreed-upon list of $3 million in cuts and spending adjustments should be enough to cover an expected $3 million drop in financing from the state, the district still may find itself dealing with some increased expenses.

And for that, there essentially would be two options: Find relief by digging deeper into savings accounts, or inflict pain by extending cuts into personnel, programs and other expenses.

Either way, balancing the books looks to remain a work in progress as teacher negotiations continue and competition for scarce state revenues endures.

“It’s going to get a whole lot more complicated,” said Vanessa Sanburn, one of three board members who will remain in office in July, when four members elected April 5 take office and consider approving next year’s budget. “There’s a lot of things on the list that I don’t want to have to make cuts in. …

“None of them are easy.”

Negotiations continue

Among the biggest uncertainties already being discussed by the current board, but sure to be addressed formally by the next one: a request from teachers for at least $1.3 million in raises, which would be equal to $1,500 per licensed educator districtwide.

The request has been made during negotiations for a new master agreement, but those negotiations won’t be expected to close for weeks or even months. District negotiators have yet to respond to the Lawrence Education Association’s wage request, and the union has yet to propose expected increases in fringe benefits, such as health insurance.

But one thing is certain: District administrators must offer contracts to educators and administrators no later than May 20, and board members already have agreed not to cut more teachers or increase class sizes any further to save more money.

That essentially leaves the board with a list of 17 potential additional cuts that, together, could be expected to amount to $490,000 — on average, less than $29,000 per item.

Among the potential moves:

• Cut $57,975 by eliminating the half-time positions for attendance secretaries in next year’s middle schools, jobs that had been full-time a year ago.

• Cut $24,030, by eliminating eight positions for assistant coaches at high schools.

• Save $12,969 by eliminating positions of cheerleading coaches in middle schools, eliminating the programs.

• Generate another $50,000 by increasing district pay-to-play fees for sports and cocurricular activities, such as debate and forensics, from $50 to $75.

• Save a total of $45,316 by eliminating coaching positions for bowling, golf, gymnastics and swimming and diving, which would end each of the programs.

• Save money by reducing the number of school nurses, who cost the district an average of $55,056, with health office assistants, who average $22,353.

Spend more, save less

Bob Byers, another board member who will remain in office when next year’s budget is approved and enacted, doesn’t plan on making further cuts to such programs for the coming year.

The board already has agreed to close Wakarusa Valley School — estimated savings: $487,508 — to go along with using contingency funds, other cash balances and operational changes to come up with $3 million in savings.

Money needed to cover more cuts or added expenses would need to come from savings, Byers said, because it’s effectively too late to consider elimination of positions for teachers, guidance counselors and others.

“When you move all the big-dollar items off the plate, then all the smaller ones — there just aren’t enough of them left to make up for major funding issues,” Byers said. “Teacher salaries and other things — none of those things facing us, from a funding standpoint, are small-ticket items. They’re all huge ones.”

The district has $6.8 million in its contingency fund, and the plan for next year already calls for using $750,000 to help make up for the expected cut in state financing. Bumping that number higher would leave less money available to the district in future years, Byers said, and therefore would pump up pressure to consolidate schools.

The board agreed last week to form a working group of volunteers whose task will be coming up with a recommended plan for reducing the district’s number of elementary schools from 14 to either 11 or 12. An earlier task force had identified six candidates to be considered for consolidation, and the working group — to be appointed by July 1 — will be instructed to devise plans for combining Hillcrest and Sunset Hill schools in central Lawrence, as well as Cordley, Kennedy and New York in eastern Lawrence.

Consolidating would be expected to require money from a bond issue, one that is yet to be formulated and proposed, much less approved.

But Byers is certain that the coming years’ challenges will require that the district come up with efficient buildings, or else teachers and programs in schools — resources directly related to the education of students — inevitably will move closer to being cut, all to balance an operational budget that shows little chance of expanding.

“It’s money we don’t have,” Byers said.