Lawrence school board takes closures off table for next school year; millions in budget cuts still needed
photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World
Story updated at 10:35 p.m. Monday:
Lawrence school board members said they are not interested in closing schools in the next school year to address the district’s multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.
The board discussed three proposed budget-reduction packages as part of its meeting Monday at the district offices, as well as a recently completed equity analysis regarding those proposals. None of the board members said they were interested in pursuing the school closure scenarios proposed by the district for the next school year — one of which would close five schools and another that would close two schools — and only one board member, Shannon Kimball, said that school closures were not completely off the table for her for the upcoming school year.
The board did not vote, but the members came to a consensus that they did not want to pursue school closures for the upcoming school year.
“It looks like at least in the short-term, school closures are off the table,” school board president Erica Hill said.
However, board members acknowledged that other cuts would need to be made to balance the district’s budget and pursue other goals, such as staff raises, and those would be difficult decisions.
Kimball said the board needed to look at as many options as possible, including school closures, but that she thought the schools proposed for closure were “not the right ones.” Kimball emphasized that the district’s budget issues were wide and systemic, not a one-year blip, and needed to be solved.
“The schools that we all love will not be the places that we want to send our kids in a few years if we cannot figure this out,” Kimball said. “And we have struggled at this board table and in this district to figure this out for the last 10 years.”
The district estimates the deficit for the current school year is $3.2 million to $3.85 million; however, a $7 million figure has been used as a target in the district’s budget planning. As part of the meeting, the board also agreed that the district should continue to use that target, at least until more information is known, to make sure the board would have funding to use toward staff compensation increases next school year.
The district recently proposed three budget-reduction packages based on a larger list of dozens of potential 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.
Kimball said that many things about option one, which would have put the students from the four elementary schools into the Liberty Memorial building, did not align with the district’s equity work, and that she didn’t think the board had the time it needed to consider its options. Kelly Jones agreed the proposed schools were not the right ones for the community and more time was needed.
Hill said she thought there were other models that should be explored, but that she was not against school closures in general. She said she’d seen the inefficiencies that existed in some of the schools, and that allowing them to continue to operate in that manner was not sustainable.
Paula Smith said school closures were not something that she felt she could support at this time, but that she was open to considering incremental school closures at a later date when there was a chance to have a community committee included in the process.
Carole Cadue-Blackwood said she was not willing to support any school closures at this time, and that the schools that were targeted were a slap in the face. Cadue-Blackwood said she grew up in East Lawrence and attended Lawrence schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, and that disparities have plagued the community generation after generation.
Andrew Nussbaum said he was still requesting and needing a study of the district’s administrative costs, and he saw those who work at the district office as the furthest away from students. Kay Emerson said the relatively small amount of money school closures would save made that prospect a nonstarter for her, and she also thought they needed more time. Later in the meeting, Emerson said the discussion that was to come would impact everyone, and she encouraged the community to get involved.
Alicia Erickson, an organizer with the Save Our Schools group, said that she thought they were all breathing a sigh of relief that the school closures were off the table for next year. She said considering school closures on such a short timeline had been unreasonable, and she hoped the group would now have the space and time to work with the district and for a formalized process for input to be created.
Before the meeting, dozens of people gathered outside the district offices in opposition to school closures. As part of its meeting, the board heard more than an hour and a half of public comment. Many commenters spoke about the importance of neighborhood schools, the harmful effect closures would have on students and a desire to explore other options to address the district’s budget shortfall.