A guide to the Lawrence school district’s budget shortfall and potential school closures
photo by: Mike Yoder
As the Lawrence school board prepares to begin discussions about possible school closures, the Journal-World sought to clarify or add detail to some of the key questions surrounding the district’s budget shortfall and the proposed budget cuts.
The following guide includes details about the budget deficit and targets for potential budget cuts; clarifications about the amount of money the proposed school closures would save the district; and information about potential alternatives to school closures, including administrative pay reductions. The questions were developed based on topics the Journal-World sought to clarify, questions being heard in the community and issues raised by the local group Save Our Schools.
The answers are based on Journal-World reporting; information provided by the school district; data and materials that have been provided to the school board; and information the school district reports to the Kansas State Department of Education.
What is the district’s budget shortfall?
The district estimates the deficit for the current school year is $3.2 million to $3.85 million, and that amount will be updated once an end-of-year audit is conducted. However, in December, before recently elected school board members were seated, board members Shannon Kimball and Kelly Jones both said the board should consider even further cuts to the budget to make sure the board would have funding to use toward staff compensation increases next school year. While they did not provide a specific number they would want to reach, they spoke in general terms of cutting up to $7 million total, as the Journal-World previously reported.
Each 1% wage increase for all employee groups, including administrators, would take an additional $825,000, according to a district staff presentation in November. In addition, at a meeting in January, the current board voted unanimously to direct administration to begin efforts to build back up the district’s reserve funds, including through the transfer of unspent general fund dollars. The motion did not specifically mention making budget cuts to do so or include specific amounts. According to the November presentation, to bring the fund up to a target of 2%, it would require a transfer from the general fund of $795,457.
What are the budget reduction options?
Though the $7 million figure has been used as a target in the district’s budget planning and the district’s three proposed budget-reduction packages, the board will decide the level of budget cuts to make. Similarly, though the district must create a balanced budget, it is solely the board’s decision as to which budget cuts are made and whether any schools are closed.
The school district introduced a list of dozens of potential budget cuts in January, and drawing from that list the district presented the three proposed budget-reduction packages on Feb. 9. Two of those packages would close schools, while the third does not include any school closures but has the highest level of program cuts. Option one proposes closing Broken Arrow Elementary, New York Elementary, Woodlawn Elementary, Pinckney Elementary and Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. Option two proposes closing Broken Arrow Elementary and Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. All options include program and staff cuts, but option three, which closes no schools, includes the most program reductions. Option one includes the most staff cuts.
However, the board is not limited to the list compiled by the district or the three proposed packages; the board could pick one of the three options as proposed, modify one of the options, or come up with its own budget reduction package. In December, at the same meeting where the $7 million figure was discussed, the board also asked for an analysis of the district’s administrative costs compared to peer school districts to understand whether the district is “administrative heavy.”
What caused the budget shortfall?
A key driver of the budget shortfall is enrollment declines at the elementary and middle school levels and the subsequent loss of state aid. Enrollment in those age groups first began to see some declines in 2016, but then saw more significant drops in the past few years.
Between 2015 and 2019, enrollment at those levels dropped from 7,546 students to 7,457 students, or by 89 students or 1%, according to district enrollment reports. Then in just one year, from 2019 to 2020, enrollment at those levels dropped from 7,457 students to 7,322 students, or by 135 students or about 2%. From 2020 to 2021, enrollment at those levels dropped the most significantly, from 7,322 students to 6,695 students, or by 627 students or about 8.5%. Across all grade levels, kindergarten through 12th grade, enrollment dropped from 10,396 students to 10,054 students, or by 342 students or about 3.3%, from 2019 to 2020. From 2020 to 2021, overall enrollment dropped from 10,054 students to 9,953 students, or by 101 students or about 1%.
How much would the proposed school closures save the district?
After the district released corrected estimates on Friday that district spokesperson Julie Boyle said properly accounted for staff reductions and boundary changes, the amount of money the district estimates the two school closure scenarios will save has decreased.
Option one includes the closure of five schools — Broken Arrow, New York, Woodlawn, Pinckney and Liberty Memorial — and a reduction of 24 programs and 99 staff. Under the corrected estimates, the total savings are now $6.5 million, with the five school closures generating about $2.17 million.
Option two includes the closure of two schools — Broken Arrow and Liberty Memorial — and a reduction of 32 programs and 84 staff. Under the corrected estimates, the total savings are now $5.8 million, with the two school closures generating about $1.23 million.
Option three includes no school closures and a reduction of 34 programs and 95 staff. Under the corrected estimates, the total savings are now $6.7 million.
What are the costs associated with the proposed school closures, such as renovations and busing?
Option one includes a plan to relocate the students from the four closed elementary schools to the vacated middle school. District officials have said that will require renovations to the middle school building to make it suitable for elementary students, though a cost estimate for those renovations has not been discussed and is not included in the proposed budget-reduction package.
When asked about those costs, Boyle noted that the budget shortfall is in the district’s general fund and renovations to buildings are made with capital outlay funds. She said if the board chooses an option that requires renovations, the district would reallocate capital outlay funds from other projects for that purpose.
Regarding busing, Boyle said that because the boundary scenarios involve schools located near one another, staff does not anticipate significant transportation cost increases. She also noted that the state reimburses transportation for students living 2.5 miles or more from school, and the vast majority of the transportation offered by the district is state-reimbursable, meaning that if there were increases in busing costs, they would be covered by the state.
What are equity considerations?
All of the schools the district has proposed for closure are either in eastern Lawrence or North Lawrence. The schools — Broken Arrow Elementary, New York Elementary, Woodlawn Elementary, Pinckney Elementary and Liberty Memorial Central Middle School — are generally more racially and socioeconomically diverse than the district as a whole.
About 33% of the students in the district are students of color, identifying as either Hispanic, African-American or “other,” according to KSDE reports. Those identifying as Hispanic, African-American or other students of color make up 35% of the students at Broken Arrow; 34% of the students at New York; 31% of the students at Woodlawn; 45% of the students at Pinckney; and 39% of the students at Liberty Memorial. For comparison, about 24% of students at Quail Run Elementary and about 27% of students at Southwest Middle School identify as students of color.
About 25% of students in the district are classified as economically disadvantaged, according to KSDE reports. About 32% of students at Broken Arrow are economically disadvantaged, about 47% of New York students, about 34% of Woodlawn students, about 41% of Pinckney students, and about 44% of Liberty Memorial students. For comparison, about 14% of students at Quail Run Elementary and about 15% of students at Southwest Middle School are classified as economically disadvantaged.
Is closing one or more of the bigger west-side schools and relocating those students to central and/or east-side schools an option to save costs?
Boyle said that staff looked at scenarios involving moving students from west to east. She said those scenarios did not accomplish significant budget savings.
What are some of the programs that could be cut and other proposed budget reductions that don’t involve school closures?
The list of proposed budget cuts includes various program and staff cuts, as do the three recently proposed budget-reduction packages. Potential program reductions include the gymnastics program, middle school sports, band and orchestra, and AVID, an equity-focused college-readiness program, among various others. All three packages also include increases to classroom ratios at the elementary and middle school levels.
How much does the budget spend on administrative costs, and is reducing administrative positions and salaries an option?
As part of the district’s 2021-2022 budget, about $15.7 million of the district’s total expenditures of about $201.5 million — or about 8% — went toward administration and support costs, according to budget information the district is required to report to the Kansas State Department of Education. That spending represents about a $2.5 million or 19% increase from the amount the district spent on administration and support costs the previous school year, in 2020-2021. That year, the district spent about $13.3 million.
Reducing administrative positions and salaries is an option the board could choose to pursue, and some potential reductions are included in the options outlined by the school district. Options two and three include salary reductions for administrative staff making more than $100,000, accomplished through furlough days, with an estimated savings of $100,000. The board could also choose, if it desired, to make across-the-board salary reductions for the highest-paid administrators, but that option is not included in any of the three proposed budget-reduction packages.
Is it an option to sell the district headquarters or previously closed school properties still owned by the district, such as the former East Heights property or the former Wakarusa Valley property?
Though the district could sell some of its properties, proceeds from those sales would not go to the general fund, where the district has its budget shortfall. However, any operational costs the district pays for the buildings, such as utility costs, would come from the general fund, so it is possible some savings could be achieved in that regard.
Boyle said that while the district could sell properties it no longer needs, any money it got from the sale would be legally required to go back into the capital outlay fund. She said those funds cannot be transferred to the general fund nor used for general fund expenditures, such as teacher salaries. She also added that the East Heights and Wakarusa Valley buildings are both in use. East Heights houses the Community Transition Program, which provides workplace and independent living skills training and special education services for people ages 18 to 21, and Wakarusa Valley serves as the headquarters for the Lawrence Virtual School. She said the district also rents other spaces at Wakarusa to the Greenbush education cooperative.
It is also an option to sell the district headquarters building at 110 McDonald Drive and redistribute administrators throughout existing school district buildings or relocate them to a closed or to-be-closed building. Like other property sales, savings to operational expenses could potentially save the district money in the general fund, but sale proceeds would have to go into the capital outlay fund.
Are taxpayers still paying for renovations completed at schools that will potentially be closed?
Yes. As the Journal-World recently reported, schools being considered for closure recently had at least $16.5 million worth of taxpayer-funded improvements. If those schools were closed, taxpayers would still be paying the debt on those millions of dollars of improvements for more than a decade. The last payment date for the district’s 2013 bond issue — which spent more than $97 million on school building improvements and was approved by about three-quarters of the district’s voters — is Sept. 1, 2035.
The most wide-reaching school closure scenario is the one that would close Broken Arrow, New York, Woodlawn and Pinckney elementary schools and consolidate those students at what is now Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. The combined amount spent on improving just those four elementary schools accounts for $16.5 million. That cost increases to about $25.3 million if you include Kennedy Elementary School, which was closed and turned into an early-childhood education community center last year.
When will board budget discussions and decisions occur?
As part of its meeting Monday, the Lawrence school board will have its initial discussion regarding the three budget-reduction packages and a recently completed equity analysis regarding those proposals. Due to the timeframe for public notice required by law, the school board must decide at its meeting on Feb. 21 whether it wants to keep school closures on the table. If the board decides to consider closures, public hearings would take place toward the end of March and the vote would take place in mid-April.