Lawrence school board discusses priorities for upcoming budget discussion, potential school closures
photo by: Rochelle Valverde
With some opposing viewpoints expressed, Lawrence school board members struggled to formulate their direction to the committee tasked with coming up with budget and potential school closure recommendations for the school district.
RSP & Associates, the consultant the district hired to facilitate the process, provided an update on the committee’s work to the board as part of a special meeting on Monday. Some committee members have expressed a desire for more direction from the board to guide its process, but there was disagreement among the seven-member board regarding what that should be. After some back-and-forth, the board ended up taking an approximately 30-minute recess so Board President Shannon Kimball, Board Vice President Paula Vann and Past President Erica Hill could meet behind closed doors with the consultant and the superintendent to discuss how to move toward a conclusion.
“I want to thank board members for your feedback and for the conversation and for the opportunity to have some honest disagreement about the issues,” Kimball said upon returning from the recess. “We are faced with some really difficult circumstances as a board and as district, and so I think it’s healthy for us to have an opportunity to have some conversation like this.”
Before the recess, board member Kay Emerson laid out five areas for consideration — including specific stipulations about school boundaries, walking distance to schools, bus routes and other factors — that she thought should be a consideration should there be any recommendation to close schools. Kimball disagreed with “putting guardrails” on the conversation or getting to that level of specificity at the committee level. Instead, she thought the committee discussion should be high level, and that it should be up to the board and the administration to determine the specifics of how any agreed-upon actions are implemented. Vann and board member Kelly Jones expressed reservations about the speed of the process, and whether a recommendation to close a particular school or schools, which must be announced in February under state law, was either feasible or advisable.
Though Jones continued to express concerns about the proposed timeline, the board ultimately came up with some additional guidance for the committee, specifically regarding the flexibility of the district’s budget priorities.
The district previously provided three financial priorities to the committee, the anticipated cost of addressing each priority and the time frame for making those investments. The first priority is to provide competitive wages for staff, which the district estimates will require $9 million over a one- to two-year time frame. The district’s second financial priority is to allocate funds for annual cost increases, such as property and liability insurance premiums, health insurance premiums and utilities, which the district estimates will require about $1 million annually. The third is to increase the district’s cash reserve balances, which the district estimates will require about $6.2 million over a 10-year time frame. RSP had committee members indicate their support for the district priorities, and the third had the least support.
The board agreed that all three of the priorities identified by the district should be addressed to some degree by the budget recommendation, but said that the direction from the committee could be more flexible, potentially providing a range for the amount that should be invested toward each priority and a phased plan for implementation. Board members also agreed there should be more information about how the district arrived at the amounts and that certain questions should be addressed.
During the discussion, some board members questioned what metrics were driving the $9-million figure for wages, and, in response to questions from Emerson, district staff clarified that the $1 million identified for cost increases as part of priority two did not include the funding needed to continue to expand the Montessori program the district is phasing in at New York Elementary School. Board members agreed they would like to see the annual cost for expanding the program.
The district initially proposed closing multiple schools for the 2022-2023 school year to help address a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall driven by enrollment declines and the board’s desire to set aside funding for staff raises and cash reserves. While the board took school closures off the table for this school year, it was expected closures could again be a consideration for the 2023-2024 school year.
In August, the school board hired RSP to use five-year enrollment projections, development and housing analysis, school boundaries and other data to help plan how the district uses its school buildings. The district’s $120,000 contract with RSP includes an enrollment analysis and a facility master plan process for the district. RSP will guide the committee in using enrollment, facility information and other data to create the facility master plan and budget recommendations for the school board.