Lawrence school board hires consultant to help plan future use of school buildings

photo by: USD 497

Board Vice President Paula Smith, Past President Erica Hill, and board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood discuss equity issues in relation to the upcoming facility master plan process.

As it prepares for more difficult budget decisions, the Lawrence school board has approved hiring an outside consultant to use enrollment projections and other data to help plan how the district uses its school buildings.

As part of its meeting Monday, the Lawrence school board voted 6-0 to approve a $120,000 proposal from RSP & Associates to complete an enrollment analysis and guide a facility master plan process for the district. Board President Shannon Kimball said the consultant would give the district a more complete view of the issue — budget, program and facility aspects — while also freeing up district staff who have had to devote a lot of time toward the budget planning process.

“In my mind it will bring together a whole bunch of different strands of conversations that we’ve been trying to bring together, and we haven’t been able to achieve that,” Kimball said.

The district initially proposed closing multiple schools for the 2022-2023 school year to help address a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall driven largely by enrollment declines and the board’s desire to set aside funding for staff raises. While the board took school closures off the table for the upcoming year, it is expected closures will again be a consideration for the 2023-2024 school year as the district’s budget issues persist.

The enrollment analysis will include five-year enrollment projections, a development and housing analysis and a demographic profile, all of which will inform the facility master plan for the district’s buildings. The process aims to be “community oriented,” and develop the plan with the input of a committee of community members.

A tentative plan laid out for the facility master plan process includes a committee with 30 to 40 community members representing all areas of the district, according to RSP presentation materials. The board will select the committee members via an open application process, and the first meeting will be held Sept. 7. The committee will use the enrollment analysis, facility condition assessments, cost estimates, boundary scenarios, and district data to inform its planning discussions.

The board heard some concerns and questions from groups representing staff and parents, including concerns about equity, which the board also emphasized.

Tatyana Younger, a district paraeducator and executive vice president PAL-CWA, the union for the district’s classified staff, said that the union did not support the proposal. The district and the union reached an agreement in June to increase funding for those workers’ wages by $806,336, falling far short of the union’s proposal to bring all pay to at least $15 per hour. Younger said the union was opposed to the district spending money on consultants when the union was told there was no more money for wages and the district continues to face a staffing crisis. She said the union believed people closest to the problem — such as parents, students and staff — are closest to the solution.

Suzie Johannes, a representative for the local group Save Our Schools, read a statement from SOS that noted the district’s 2013 bond issue that spent millions on school buildings, and stated that ideally the board would prioritize neighborhood schools over large enrollment centers. The SOS statement also asked in part that if the district was going to pay $120,000 on consultants, that the board ensure that it include meaningful family and student engagement and multiple data points, such as an equity analysis, future growth on all sides of town, and a comprehensive boundary analysis that also considers the possibility of shifting boundaries to fill underutilized schools.

Several board members also spoke to a desire for the process to strongly consider equity. School board Vice President Paula Smith asked that RSP make a commitment to review the district’s equity policy when forming the committee and developing the committee application. Past President Erica Hill said she agreed equity and representation were key when considering the makeup of the committee.

“There are people who advocate for what’s important for them, and they’re very vocal, and so I would like to see a commitment to ensuring, at a minimum, meaningful participation from the underrepresented groups, which would mean being intentional about inviting them to the table,” Hill said.

Board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood asked that RSP review routes for students who walk to school and the location of affordable housing options in Lawrence, which have been concentrated heavily on the city’s east side, as part of its analysis.

Board member Kelly Jones asked that the board’s existing committees, which cover issues including equity, the budget and school boundaries, be involved in the process. Jones asked how RSP would ensure it was not losing institutional knowledge. In response to Jones, RSP staff said that existing district committee members could be members of the facility master plan committee and that the committees would also be asked to provide input on the process.

The overall process to create the facility master plan will include eight committee meetings, two formal public input sessions, and a community survey. RSP will facilitate the meetings. The process will begin in September and the proposed facility master plan will go to the board for consideration in February 2023. Regarding the cost of the contract, the board’s motion specified that the $120,000 be paid from the district’s federal pandemic aid instead of the general fund if possible.

In other business:

• District staff presented the previously discussed budget for the upcoming 2022-2023 school year. The budget includes $6.41 million in budget cuts, and allocates $1.72 million for employee raises and $200,000 to the district’s reserve fund. The board voted 6-0 to approve the maximum expenditures in the budget and set a budget hearing for 6 p.m. on Sept. 12 at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive.

• The board received a report on an increase in the number of police officers at Lawrence secondary schools, known as school resource officers (SROs). The Lawrence Police Department has recently offered to add two SROs back to the district at no cost, which would allow the district to return to having an SRO assigned to each middle and high school. Currently there are only SROs at the high schools, and some board members expressed concerns about introducing SROs and potential contact with the criminal justice system into the middle schools. The board expressed a desire to further discuss the topic and closely monitor outcomes at the schools.


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