Proposed budget-cut scenario from Lawrence school district administration includes three school closures, up to $9M in cuts

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

District finance director Cynde Frick addresses the Futures Planning Committee during its meeting Dec. 14, 2022, at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive.

Lawrence school district administrators have developed a budget reduction package that calls for up to $9 million in cuts, including three school closures — two elementary schools and one middle school.

As part of its meeting Wednesday evening at district offices, the Futures Planning Committee received a scenario of potential budget cuts from district administration that would cut an estimated $7.15 million to $9.1 million from the district’s budget through a combination of staff cuts, program reductions and three school closures.

At the opening of the meeting, Superintendent Anthony Lewis told committee members that the goal was to put the district in a good position for decades to come.

“As a collective group, I want us to really think about setting this school system up, this community up, for success 30 years from now,” Lewis said. “So much so that you, or maybe someone else, are not asked to come back to this room in six, eight, 10, 12 years to have similar discussions as we are having. That’s what I would call legacy work, that the time, the energy, the emotion, that we are putting to this process is positioning the school system for future success.”

Specifically, scenario one, which was created with “administration input on budget items,” includes “repurposing” two elementary schools and one middle school, with a projected savings of $300,000 to $400,000 for each elementary school and $325,000 for the middle school. The scenario does not identify specific schools. Staffing and program cuts make up the remainder of the proposed cuts, with $6.17 million to $7.92 million in staff reductions and $58,000 in program reductions.

The most significant staffing reduction would be increasing middle and high school class sizes — to 28 and 30 students, respectively — for an estimated savings of $3.25 million to about $5 million. The other staffing reductions are eliminating some middle school planning time for an estimated savings of $1.3 million; reducing student support staff by $100,000; reducing classified staff by $258,422; and eliminating district payment to staff 403(b) accounts for an estimated savings of $1.26 million.

The proposed program reductions would consist of $25,000 in reductions to athletics, $8,000 in reductions to other extracurricular activities, and $25,000 in reductions to curriculum and instruction. No further specifics were given about the proposed staffing and program reductions. The budget scenario notes that savings estimates are preliminary and administration will continue to analyze and refine estimates for accuracy.

One committee member asked whether the scenario presented Wednesday was what district administration thought was the best scenario, or if the committee would be presented with other scenarios or options. Lewis responded that after looking at what was cut in 2021 and 2022 — which included the closure of Kennedy Elementary and repurposing the building for early childhood in 2021 and significant teacher reductions in 2022 — the scenario presented was what administrators believed was feasible.

“This is what we believe can happen,” Lewis said. “It’s not a best — I don’t think there is any best (scenario) — but this is what we believe can be done. And again we looked at what was cut in ’21, what was cut in ’22, and tried not to cut in some of those areas as much as possible.”

The Lawrence school board has not identified a specific dollar amount for the committee to cut, but board members have said that making teacher and staff wages competitive is a key priority. District administration has set some targets for the committee as it discussed potential budget reduction options.

The district previously provided three financial priorities to the committee, the anticipated cost of addressing each priority and the time frame for making those investments. The first priority is to provide competitive wages for staff, which the district estimates will require $9 million over one to two years. The district’s second financial priority is to allocate funds for annual cost increases, such as property and liability insurance premiums, health insurance premiums and utilities, which the district estimates will require about $1 million annually. The third is to increase the district’s cash reserve balances, which the district estimates will require about $6.2 million over 10 years. RSP previously had committee members indicate their support for the district priorities, and the third had the least support.

The school board recently agreed that all three of the priorities identified by the district should be addressed to some degree by the budget recommendation, but said that the direction from the committee could be more flexible, potentially providing a range for the amount that should be invested toward each priority and a phased plan for implementation. Board members also agreed there should be more information about how the district arrived at the dollar amounts. Once complete, the committee’s recommendation will go to the school board, which makes the ultimate decisions.

After being presented with the scenario from district administration, the committee was asked whether there were other potential cuts that should be considered or certain cuts that should be off the table. The committee discussed and recorded responses to those questions, which were collected with the plan of sharing them at the committee’s next meeting.

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. Under the original meeting schedule, the committee only had two more meetings to finalize its recommendation. At the close of the meeting, Robert Schwarz, of RSP & Associates, told the committee that an additional meeting would be held in response to committee feedback that more time was needed.

Schwarz said the additional committee meeting would be held on Jan. 11 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive. He said as a result the two subsequent public input sessions would be moved to Jan. 17 and Jan. 18. He said that at the Jan. 11 meeting, the plan was to have the core components of the recommendation so that community input could then be gathered.

“Are we moving in the right direction?” Schwarz said. “Did we go too far in one of the buckets (staff, program or building cuts) or any of the buckets? What is their thinking on what we’re trying to accomplish here?”


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