Elementary essentials fill priorities list

Lawrence schools superintendent Rick Doll, foreground, addresses school board members at a meeting in March. He has recently compiled a list of priorities for budget-challenged programs, services and personnel that should be part of basic elementary education in the Lawrence school district.

After listening to principals, teachers and site council members, Superintendent Rick Doll has compiled a list of priorities for budget-challenged programs, services and personnel that should be part of basic elementary education in the Lawrence school district.

Topping the list:

  • Full-day kindergarten in all schools.
  • Full-time principals.
  • Small class sizes.
  • Full-time nursing, counseling and mental health services.
  • Reading and math specialists.
  • Before- and after-school programs.

“Obviously, these take dollars,” Doll said.

Where to find such dollars continues to be a focus for the district, as the Lawrence school board awaits direction from two sources: budget restrictions from the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature and recommendations from a volunteer advisory group assigned to develop a plan for closing either two or three elementaries through consolidation within the next two years.

Members of the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group have five more meetings scheduled before their end-of-January deadline.

The district continues to face declining revenues. The state has cut per-pupil payments to districts in each of the past four years — with the current level of $3,780 being the lowest since 2000 — and more reductions are feared to be on the way.

“It hasn’t been good the last several years,” said Lois Orth-Lopes, a teacher at Cordley School, past president of the Lawrence Education Association and current member of the working group. “We’re making things work, but our class sizes are growing. Our services and other support people are going down. It gets tighter and tighter every year.”

School board members who formed the working group — as recommended by another advisory group, the Lawrence Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force — did so with the idea that saving money by reducing the number of smaller schools in the district could free up additional revenues for essential services for all students.

Enter the priority list.

Doll has gathered recommendations for “essential services” from principals at all 14 schools. The principals had consulted with teachers and members of site councils at their school, to see what programs would be considered most effective in “closing achievement gaps” between different sets of students and improving “achievement for all,” Doll said.

While such services should be universal in the district’s elementary schools, Doll said, budgetary and operational challenges have held some back.

Broken Arrow and Wakarusa Valley schools shared a principal last year, for example. Some schools don’t have full-time nursing services, nor full-time professionals dealing in counseling and mental health. Reading and math specialist positions have been cut.

Four schools — Deerfield, Langston Hughes, Sunset Hill and Quail Run — still lack full-day kindergarten, a program financed elsewhere using revenues set aside for providing programs and services targeted for students considered “at risk,” a standing based on economic status.

For this academic year, the district added full-day kindergarten at two schools — Broken Arrow and Sunflower — using some of the money saved by closing Wakarusa Valley School at the end of the 2010-11 school year.

The priorities list indicates fundamental needs for all schools, Doll said. That’s regardless of a building’s size, enrollment or students’ economic standing.