Multi-grade elementary classrooms, program cuts and the elimination of dozens of teachers among school district’s potential budget-saving measures

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One of the proposals that will be discussed as the Lawrence school board seeks to cut millions of dollars from its budget is the creation of multi-grade elementary classrooms that would allow the district to employ significantly fewer teachers.

The multi-grade classrooms would give the school district the option to combine smaller classes of adjacent grade levels, allowing the district to eliminate 24 teaching positions next school year for a savings of $1.47 million. Multi-grade classrooms are among the various program cuts proposed to address the district’s multimillion-dollar budget shortfall, which taken together could result in the elimination of dozens of teaching and other positions. Other cost-saving proposals call for administrative staff and salary reductions.

At the school board’s most recent meeting on Feb. 21, board Vice President Shannon Kimball said multi-grade classrooms were among some of the “pretty obvious” bigger-dollar changes the district could make to avoid some of the smaller-dollar and less desirable cuts, such as eliminating high school gymnastics or novice orchestra.

“You can kind of look at that list and see exactly where the most likely places are that you’re going to go first for the $3.8 million (budget shortfall),” Kimball said. “You’re going to adjust (classroom) ratios, we’re going to have multi-age classrooms, we’re going to probably share building leadership at some of our smaller buildings.”

The district estimates its budget shortfall is $3.2 million to $3.85 million, and the board has discussed a target of $7 million in budget reductions to have funding for teacher and staff raises. The board has taken recently proposed school closures off the table for next year and will be deciding which programs and staff to cut as part of a meeting March 28.

Multi-grade classrooms and teacher cuts

The multi-grade classrooms would save the district money because they allow more possibilities for combining classrooms with low numbers of students, thereby resulting in fewer classes overall and the need for fewer teachers.

The proposal calls for mixed kindergarten and first grade classrooms; mixed first grade and second grade classrooms; mixed second grade and third grade classrooms; and mixed fourth grade and fifth grade classrooms.

Under a scenario recommended by the district’s Budget and Program Evaluation Committee, multi-grade classrooms would allow the district to eliminate as many as 24 teaching positions. Considering the average cost of an elementary teacher is $61,062, the district estimates that scenario for multi-grade classrooms could save the district up to $1.47 million next school year.

To allow for some of the multi-grade classroom combinations, the district would need to adjust maximum class sizes downward for certain grades. Under the recommended scenario, the maximum class size for third grade would decrease from 27 students to 25 students.

That would enable the district to put third graders in the same classroom as second graders, who have a maximum class size of 25 students. District spokesperson Julie Boyle said that in the multi-grade scenarios, the classes that involved a third grader would have a 25-student maximum.

As kindergarten through second grade all already have a maximum class size of 25 students and fourth and fifth grades both have a maximum of 30 students, no further changes are needed to make combinations with other adjacent grade levels.

The district created examples of what the multi-grade classrooms could look like in the next school year under the recommended scenario. Under the example, all but two of the district’s 13 elementary schools — the exceptions being Cordley and Schwegler — would have some multi-grade classrooms next year. There would be a total of 34 multi-grade classrooms, all but seven of those at the kindergarten through third grade levels. The exact scenario would change from year to year depending on enrollment.

The 24 elementary teaching positions that would be eliminated with the creation of multi-grade classrooms would be in addition to 10 positions the district has proposed cutting due to declines in student enrollment. That proposal would save the district about $611,000.

In addition to the changes at the elementary level, another proposal would increase the maximum class size at the middle school level by one student. That change would allow for the elimination of approximately five teaching positions for a savings of about $330,000. Those positions would be in addition to about six middle school positions the district has proposed cutting due to declines in student enrollment for a savings of about $376,000. At the high school level, the committee has proposed that low-enrollment courses share staff, allowing for the elimination of eight teachers for a savings of about $521,000.

Taken together, the staff cuts due to enrollment declines and the proposed changes to elementary, middle school and high school classroom formats would allow the district to eliminate a total of about 53 teachers for a savings of about $3.3 million.

Other proposed program cuts would add to those totals. The district has proposed 34 program cuts, which it estimates would eliminate 96 positions for a savings of about $6.7 million.

Other proposed program and staff cuts

Though the district may come up with additional budget-cutting options, the current list of proposals includes various other program and staff cuts in addition to those related to enrollment declines and classroom formats.

Another relatively high-dollar proposal calls for reducing the district’s library media staff by 75%, amounting to the elimination of 20 positions and a savings of about $1.14 million. Another proposal calls for a 75% reduction to learning coaches, who provide support to new teachers, amounting to the elimination of about 11 positions and a savings of about $704,000. With both of those proposals, there are versions that would eliminate fewer of those staff positions.

The Journal-World asked the district whether some school libraries would have to close under the 75% reduction scenario, or how the cuts would otherwise be distributed or absorbed. Chief Academic Officer Patrick Kelly said early considerations include adjusting library media specialists to reflect the number of students or sections by building at the elementary level, reducing or eliminating library media assistants, and reducing the number of library media specialists at the secondary level and having those who remain in place share buildings. Kelly said that library media staff provides 45 minutes of planning time each week for elementary teachers, and any staff reduction must ensure that planning time is retained.

A proposal to reconfigure the AVID program, an equity-focused college-readiness program, would save the district $100,000. There are not specific scenarios for how AVID would be reconfigured, but currently there are 18 AVID elective teachers at the middle- and high-school levels who teach a total of 410 students, according to information from Boyle. The elimination of five special education positions — one vacant support position, one vacant secretary position and three positions related to the restructuring of the gifted program — would save the district about $173,000.

Some of the proposed program cuts are in the district’s athletics and activities spending. Those include eliminating the high school gymnastics program, district funding for the annual All-City Choir Festival, and 11 high school club sponsors. Other proposals would cut some assistant coaches in the middle school cheer, middle school basketball, and high school athletic programs. Reductions are also proposed for flag corps, youth symphony, and novice band and orchestra, among others. The athletics and activities reductions are relatively low dollar, with the 13 total reductions resulting in about $98,000 in savings combined.

Administrative staff and pay cuts

Another relatively higher-dollar group of proposals would eliminate administrative positions and reduce some administrative salaries.

Eliminating one executive director position would save about $141,000; eliminating one director position would save about $122,000; and eliminating one curriculum specialist would save about $87,000. Another proposal would eliminate three administrative assistant positions for a savings of $139,000 combined. Sharing elementary principals would save about $93,000, and making reductions to assistant high school principals would save about $68,000.

The salary-reduction proposal would reduce the salaries of administrators making more than $100,000, with a reduction of 5% amounting to about $170,000 in budget savings. Boyle said the salary cut would be accomplished through furlough days or reducing administrators’ paid contract days.

Taken together, the administrative staff cuts and a 5% salary reduction for those making more than $100,000 would save the district about $819,000 total for next school year.

At their meeting on Feb. 21, board members asked for district administrators to create a list that prioritizes potential budget cuts with the least impact on students. Board members also indicated they were open to looking at new proposals, in addition to those already proposed by the Budget and Program Evaluation Committee. To provide adequate notice to staff whose contracts may not be renewed, the board discussed the desire to publicize the prioritized list toward the beginning of March, in preparation for deciding which cuts to pursue at the board’s meeting on March 28.


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