Staff pay, impact on students among school board priorities for 2023-2024 school year budget
photo by: Rochelle Valverde
With the district’s financial strain ongoing, the Lawrence school board has begun discussing its budget priorities for the 2023-2024 school year, with both staff pay and student impact mentioned as focal points.
The Lawrence school board began budget conversations as part of a study session Monday, which is several months earlier than usual, with the aim of improving the process. Superintendent Anthony Lewis told board members that the district is looking at hiring an outside consultant to do an enrollment analysis, help facilitate the budget process and engage with the community.
“We want to make sure this is a trustworthy process,” Lewis said.
As part of the 45-minute study session, district staff handed out packets that included the district’s strategic plan goals and the progress on various action steps related to those goals, and board members made brief comments about some of their priorities for the budget process.
Board President Shannon Kimball spoke to the budget issues the district had to face because of declining enrollment and flat state funding, and said that, for her, addressing staff pay was key for the 2023-2024 budget. She also said the district needed a long-term operational structure that would address its priorities and weather the ups and downs, and that would take large operational changes.
“For me, it’s really important for us to put the district in the financial position in the long term of operating within our means,” Kimball said.
Board member Kay Emerson said she also thought wages were important but they were not everything. Emerson said considerations for her also included upkeep and maintenance of buildings, school curriculum, the experience of students, and how to support teachers and staff beyond just wages. Emerson also said the board needs to know the specific costs associated with the board’s priorities.
Board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood said she echoed Emerson’s comments, and added that she’d also like the board to think about how their decisions about schools affect the city’s future growth patterns.
Board member Kelly Jones said the board had to consider how to be fiscally responsible and at the same time consider the impact of their decisions on the community.
“I don’t think it’s an either/or,” Jones said. “We have to figure out how to do both.”
Referencing a previously proposed school-closure scenario that would have combined students from multiple eastside elementary schools in one building as an example, Jones said the board could not put all children from one area of town in one building and not take responsibility for what happens to the remainder of the community as a result.
Jones also said that she wants the board to look at title funding, which is supplemental federal funds to support students in high-poverty schools, and how to put that money where it is most needed. She said she wanted the board to consider whether some of those dollars should follow elementary students after they transition to middle schools and what that might look like.
School board member Erica Hill also said staff salaries were very important, and should be addressed on the front end of the budget, but agreed the board could not just hyper focus on one issue. Hill said decisions would continue to consider the impact on students. She said the board might have some competing priorities, and it should consider identifying some “guard rails” it didn’t want to cross.
Cynde Frick, executive director of finance, also spoke during the study session to some financial components of the upcoming discussion. Frick said those numbers were not yet updated from the most recent budget discussions, but would include the cost per student for each building, which she said depended on staffing, enrollment and staff seniority, as well as the cost for each 1% raise for staff. Last year, she said cost per student ranged from $5,000 to $7,100 per student and the cost for a 1% raise for all staff was about $823,000. She said new figures would be calculated, but because of the recent staff cuts she expected that amount to be well under $800,000.
The district proposed closing multiple schools for the 2022-2023 school year to help address a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall driven largely by enrollment declines and the board’s desire to set aside funding for staff raises. The board took school closures off the table for the upcoming school year due in part to the short time frame for discussion; however, both district administrators and board members have said they expect school closures to be up for debate again for the 2023-2024 school year.
In addition, after falling far short of pay raise requests from both the certified and classified staff unions, board members said they wanted to begin budget discussions earlier than usual. Ultimately, the board approved $6.4 million in budget cuts for the upcoming school year, which included dozens of staff cuts, program reductions, and the creation of multi-grade elementary classrooms.
In other business:
•The board voted 6-0 to accept the resignation of school board member Andrew Nussbaum, who resigned his position, effective immediately, on July 18. The board discussed the timeline and process for appointing someone to fill the vacancy.
The application will become available on the district website on July 27, with a deadline of 5 p.m. on Aug. 15. The board will discuss the applications and selected applicants to interview at its meeting Aug. 22. The board will conduct interview as part of a special meeting on Aug. 29.
Kimball said that by law, the board is required to conduct the interviews in a public meeting, and once an application is provided to the board it becomes a public record. The person the board selects will fill the seat until a special election in Nov. 2023. Speaking to the desire for board cohesion, the board agreed to include a question on the application about whether the person was committed to run for the board seat in the Nov. 2023 election.