Lawrence school district expects to see millions more in funding as 1,200 more students qualify for free lunch
Other factors for school funding remain uncertain
photo by: USD 497
Though a sharp rise in the number of students qualifying for free school meals will mean a few million dollars more in funding for the Lawrence school district, district leaders expressed concern about seeing such a significant rise in poverty.
As part of its meeting Monday, the board reviewed the district’s recent enrollment counts and potential outcomes for the 2023-2024 budget based on those counts. That included that more than a third of the district’s students — 3,566 students representing 35% of all students enrolled — now qualify to receive free meals, equating to about $2.98 million more in “at-risk” funding under current state aid amounts. That trend was the first of three that School Board President Shannon Kimball drew attention to in her comments on the report.
“There is an upward trend in the number of highly impoverished families in our community, and that’s concerning,” Kimball said. “It’s not surprising, but I want people to understand that.”
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. The jump in students qualifying for free meals comes as the district’s overall enrollment has remained steady, with only one less student enrolled compared to last year.
School Board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood also remarked on the trend, noting that was an increase of about 1,200 students over last year. Cadue-Blackwood asked if the district happened to know where those students were located and whether they were concentrated at certain schools or in certain areas. District finance director Cynde Frick said she did not have that data.
Frick explained that the state Legislature uses the number of students who qualify for free meals to determine how many “at-risk” students are in the district, which results in the district receiving additional funding. Frick also said that while the district will see an increase of funding in that area, the amount the district receives for its virtual school will decrease, and other components of the budget depend on actions taken by the state Legislature in the spring.
A key number in the calculation is the district’s full-time equivalent student enrollment, or FTE, which is the main component used to determine how much funding the district receives as part of the state’s K-12 education funding formula. The district’s annual enrollment count in September indicates the district had one less student than last year and an FTE of 9,977.3, which is 8.3 FTE lower than last year. Frick said because the district is allowed to use the highest enrollment number of the last couple years to determine its budget, the district’s overall student count will be stable going into next year.
The base state funding is another area where the district might gain significant dollars. Frick said that beginning next year, the ruling made in the school funding lawsuit Gannon v. Kansas calls for base funding amounts to be adjusted by the average percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers in the Midwest region during the three preceding school years. Frick said the Kansas State Department of Education thinks the state will follow the CPI-adjustment requirement, and if that calculation were to be done right now — it won’t be done until April and could potentially increase by that time — then the district could see another $4 to $5 million in funding.
“The court has retained jurisdiction over this case, and so if the state decides to keep us flat or to offer some (funding) increase lower than the three-year average of the CPI, the case would be going back to the Supreme Court,” Frick said. “And so that’s a huge question mark in our funding and what it would look like for next year.”
Frick said if the district does see that increase, it could help with the district’s goal of making staff salaries more competitive, but since the outcome won’t be known until the spring, the district has to plan for multiple scenarios, including that the CPI adjustment is made but the state reduces funding in other areas. The Lawrence district is also among those calling for the state to fund special education at higher levels
Two funding components, or weightings, where the district may see a decrease are funding for virtual students and funding provided for high concentrations of at-risk students. Frick said the district lost 190 FTE virtual students from last school year to this year. Presentation materials indicate the district receives $5,600 per FTE for virtual students, which would mean a drop of 190 FTE could result in a decrease of around $1 million in funding. “High-density at-risk” funding is provided for schools where 35% or more of the students qualify for free meals. This school year the district will receive $800,559 for those students; however, that weighting will sunset automatically after this year if not renewed by the state Legislature.
Kimball’s other concerns were that she did not expect the high-density at-risk weighting to be renewed and the district’s drop in virtual students. In response to Kimball, Chief Academic Officer Patrick Kelly said as part the district’s efforts to increase graduation rates for the virtual school, the district has made changes to the format, including the addition of live virtual classes with teachers. He said while those changes have succeeded in boosting the graduation rate, some parents prefer older models where teachers are less involved, and with the addition of other virtual programs the district has lost students.
Apart from the funding components that will be driven by the upcoming Legislative session, Frick said the district’s enrollment numbers were still subject to an audit by the state department of education in March. She said the district would not know its final funding for the student count and the various weightings until audit results were known in April or May.
In other business, the school board also reviewed its remaining federal pandemic-related funding. The district has about $13.83 million in remaining funds, which were previously allocated to certain categories as part of the application process for those funds. The school board agreed to some proposed amendments to the application to provide about $300,000 for a new social-emotional curriculum; $176,700 for additional family surveys to collect feedback on program development; and $10,000 for a survey for certified and classified employees.