School district’s budget planning committee questions results of community survey, which found support for school closures
photo by: USD 497
The committee tasked with creating a budget recommendation for the Lawrence school board recently received the results of a community survey, which consultants said showed support for considering school closures. However, some committee members questioned whether the survey was representative of the community and asked for more specific data.
As part of its meeting Wednesday evening at district offices, the Futures Planning Committee received results from a community survey that indicates respondents thought the district should consider school closures and other facility-related budget cuts to address the district’s budget challenges. However, some committee members asked whether the results had enough representation from the east side of town — where the district has recently suggested closing schools — and people of color.
When the committee broke into groups on Wednesday to discuss the results, committee member Jessica Beeson, a former school board member, expressed concern that the results were skewed toward the northwest side of town. She said her group thought that had important implications.
“We’re a little concerned that maybe more people of means and education are probably going to fill this out,” Beeson said. “The data seems a little surprising in how many non-responses we have, and then particularly as you break that up in demographics, how low anything outside of white is.”
Beeson said her group also had concerns about the survey questions themselves. District administration and consultants from RSP & Associates developed the questions, and when they were brought to the committee at its last meeting, consultants told members that the questions had already been finalized and could not be changed. When the survey was later presented to the Lawrence school board, board members were also told it was too late to make changes to the survey format or phrasing of the questions.
“Many people in this room expressed concerns about some of these questions, and we were pretty much told that it was already approved, only to find out four or five days later at the (school) board meeting that the board was told the same thing, had the same concerns,” Beeson said. “And so it really felt dishonest, and so we just have some problems with the survey overall.”
Beeson’s group also asked whether a breakdown of only the responses from parents could be provided. Other committee members who spoke also expressed concerns about the demographics of respondents, the number of non-responses to certain questions, and the vagueness of certain questions.
One member said the responses showed that the community was looking for options and willing to consider everything. Another member asked why the survey results provided at the meeting did not include any of the written comments, only the responses to the multiple-choice questions. A consultant with RSP said there were not many written responses, but when pressed further by the committee member said those could be provided.
Robert Schwarz, of RSP & Associates, told the committee that the survey wasn’t exclusively meant to be an aid for the committee, and that some of the questions were aimed at helping administrators, board members and even employees in their considerations.
“All of those things that for some of us it may be helpful, others it may be for the board and administration,” Schwarz said.
The survey opened Nov. 8 and closed Nov. 18 and collected responses from 2,682 people. Fewer than half of the respondents who chose to answer, or 45%, said they were parents in the district; 11% said they were district staff; 10% said they were community members; 7% said they were students; and 27% did not answer.
The survey asked respondents to prioritize among three areas for budget reductions: staffing, programs and school buildings. Respondents could then indicate whether they thought the district should consider or not consider certain elements under each of the three areas.
Only a quarter of the respondents said they lived east of Iowa Street, either in the northeast or southeast quadrants of the city. Meanwhile, 39% said they lived west of Iowa Street, either in the northwest or southwest quadrants of the city. Specifically, 25% indicated they lived in the northwest quadrant; 14% indicated they lived in the southwest quadrant; 13% indicated they lived in the southeast quadrant; 12% indicated they lived in the northeast quadrant; 5% indicated they did not live in the district; and 31% did not answer.
The district’s student population is about 65% white and 35% students of color, including multi-racial and Hispanic/Latino students, according to state data. By comparison, only about 13% of the survey respondents indicated they were a person of color, Hispanic/Latino or multi-racial. Specifically, about 53% of the survey respondents indicated they were white; about 9% indicated they were either American Indian, Asian, Black/African-American, Multi-racial, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; about 4% indicated they were Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin; and about 39% chose not to answer.
One of the key questions in the survey asked respondents to select one of three options, or “buckets,” to prioritize for budget cuts. The three options were staffing cuts (no distinction was made between administrators and teachers in the question); program/activity cuts; and “facility utilization.” From those options, 59% said the committee should prioritize “facility utilization” cuts; 17% said the committee should prioritize program/activity cuts; 10% said the committee should prioritize staffing cuts; and 14% did not answer.
The survey later asked which facility-related cuts respondents thought the committee should consider. About 74% said the committee should consider consolidating/repurposing school buildings; about 59% said the committee should consider using “grade-level centers”; about 70% said the committee should consider cost reductions in facilities and operations; about 83% said the committee should consider “repurposing program specific buildings”; and about 75% said the committee should consider changes to the school calendar. Another question asked respondents whether they agreed schools were “currently being utilized to their highest level,” and 59% said they disagreed; 25% said they agreed; and 16% did not answer. RSP states in the survey report that the survey responses indicate that facility-related cuts should be prioritized over staffing and program cuts.
Respondents were then asked about what subcategories within the three areas the committee should consider. When able to break down staffing cuts into subcategories, an overwhelming majority of respondents said the committee should consider only administrative staffing reductions and not the other staffing options presented, namely elementary, middle or high school teachers, early childhood, classified staff or student support services. Specifically, 77% of respondents said the committee should consider reducing district and/or building administrative staffing. By comparison, 22% of respondents said the committee should consider reductions to early childhood services; about 8.6% said elementary, middle or high school staffing; about 16.5% said classified support staff positions; and about 23% said student support services.
The survey also asked about whether the committee should consider other potential staffing-related reductions, namely reducing health benefits provided to staff; revising staff leave; eliminating Wednesday early dismissal/collaboration time; reducing teacher planning time; and increasing staffing ratio, class sizes and multi-grade classes. The only subcategory that received significant support was eliminating Wednesday early dismissal, which about 58% of respondents said the committee should consider.
The survey then asked what program cuts the committee should consider, namely reducing middle and/or high school athletics; reducing costs in curriculum and instruction; reducing student activities (debate, band, choir, art); reducing elective class offerings; and reducing English to Speakers of Other Languages services. The only subcategories that received significant support were reducing middle and/or high school athletics, which 44% of respondents said the committee should consider, and reducing costs in curriculum and instruction, which 54% of respondents said the committee should consider.
After receiving the survey results, the consultant asked the committee to consider various budget reductions, including closure of elementary schools, closure of a middle school, and staffing and program reductions. The committee will continue to discuss potential budget reductions at its next meeting on Dec. 14.
The district hired RSP & Associates in August to create five-year enrollment projections, a building master plan, and facilitate the committee as it drafts budget and potential school closure recommendations for the school board. RSP has been doing the school district’s enrollment projections for about 15 years, and district administration told the board at that time that the district did not do a request for proposals process to consider other consultants due to the tight timeframe the board has to make budget decisions.