Lawrence school board rejects new fees for low-income students, but OKs general bump and new device fee
photo by: USD 497
The Lawrence school board has voted to increase school fees for the upcoming school year and create a new device fee, but decided against a proposal to eliminate school fee waivers for some low-income families.
As part of its meeting Monday, the board voted 4-3, with Board President Shannon Kimball and board members Erica Hill and Kay Emerson opposed, to adopt a fee proposal that includes a $3 increase to the district’s basic school fee and the addition of the new device fee that is either $15 or $25, depending on grade level. Families who qualify for either free or reduced-price meals will continue to receive complete fee waivers, as the fee schedule approved Monday struck a provision from the proposal that called for reduced-price families to begin paying fees for the first time, though at a discounted rate.
Board member Kelly Jones proposed striking the new fees for those low-income families, saying that the proposal was “tone deaf” amid the rising costs that families are already dealing with. She said she understood that the district used the fees to help pay for needed curriculum materials, but that she continued to have a lot of concerns about asking some the district’s lowest income families to pay more in fees so the district could have $50,000 or $75,000 extra dollars.
“The addition of the waiver (being eliminated) in the middle of the economic circumstances that we’re all living through in terms of inflation, gas prices and increases in food costs seems to be tone deaf,” Jones said. “I understand the board asked for a reconsideration (of fees), but it feels a little bit like a regressive tax.”
Jones was one of a few board members who previously expressed concerns about the financial burden on families who qualify for reduced-price fees during the board’s last discussion about fees on June 27. Based on that feedback, the fee schedule the district proposed Monday called for a 70% discount on basic school fees for those families, rather than the 50% discount district administrators previously proposed. The reduced rate would therefore have been $30 for elementary students and $45 for secondary students. Those families would have also had to pay a portion of the new device fees under the proposal.
Board member Andrew Nussbaum said he also continued to be uncomfortable with the proposal to begin charging fees to families who qualify for reduced-price meals. For example, he said that would still mean a family with three children, one in elementary and two in secondary, would go from paying no school fees to about $165 in school fees.
“I’m just really concerned about going from no cost to a very high cost,” Nussbaum said.
Board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood also said she would not be voting for the new fees for families who qualify for reduced-price meals. Cadue-Blackwood said her family qualified for free and reduced meals when she and her husband were in college, and they had been one of those families barely getting by.
Board member Kay Emerson said she supported the district’s proposed fee schedule, including the proposed fees for families who qualify for reduced-priced meals, but wanted the district to make sure existing waivers for financial hardship were more accessible to families and offered in multiple languages. Emerson asked district staff to recount again for the board the various new curriculum materials the district planned to purchase in the next few years, which include math, health, music and art. Kimball and Hill did not provide additional comments as part of Monday’s meeting but have also previously spoken to the need to fund new curriculum materials. Those materials are funded by school fees and can also be supported by the district’s general fund.
Under the new fee structure approved Monday, the basic school fee will increase from $97 to $100 for elementary students and from $147 to $150 for secondary students. Students at all levels who don’t qualify for fee waivers will also continue to pay a $15 activity fee, and secondary students may also pay additional fees for certain courses and extracurricular activities. The new device fee will be $15 for elementary and middle school students and $25 for high school students. School fees will continue to be completely waived for families who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
To qualify for free school meals, families need to make below 130% of federal poverty guidelines, which is $23,803 for a two-person household, $29,939 for a three-person household, and $36,075 for a four-person household. To qualify for reduced-price school meals, families must make below 185% of federal poverty guidelines, which is $33,874 for a two-person household, $42,606 for a three-person household, and $51,338 for a four-person household. Further income eligibility guidelines for the upcoming school year are available on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service website, fns.usda.gov.
In other business, the board:
– Elected its new president and vice president for the upcoming school year. The board voted unanimously to elect outgoing Board Vice President Shannon Kimball as board president. The board followed a new policy for the election of vice president, in which board members could nominate themselves or other members for the position. The board ultimately voted to elect Paula Smith as school board vice president. The other nominees were Kay Emerson and Kelly Jones. Jones, the only one of the three nominees who did not nominate herself, withdrew from the vote. The board then voted 4-3 to elect Smith board vice president, with Cadue-Blackwood, Emerson and Nussbaum voting for Emerson. The new nomination process will also be used to elect the board president in the future. The previous process elected board president and vice president based on who received the most votes in the school board election. Cadue-Blackwood said she voted for Emerson based on that method, as she thought the board should continue to honor the popular vote.
•Voted unanimously to approve changes to the board operations manual as part of an annual review process. The board discussed but did not come to consensus on potential changes to how public comment is handled. The district currently live streams and archives school board meetings on YouTube, and the platform has been removing some videos for spreading misinformation with the potential to ban users for repeated violations. Out of concern about YouTube potentially canceling the school district’s YouTube channel due to misinformation shared by public commenters, the board discussed the possibility of not live streaming public comment. The topic will continue to be discussed at an upcoming meeting.