Committee members speak to division in community regarding school closures; some express concern about district’s process

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

Rob Schwarz, of RSP & Associates, speaks to the members of the Futures Planning Committee at its meeting on Feb. 2, 2023.

Each given two minutes to speak, members of the committee tasked with providing a budget recommendation to the Lawrence school board expressed concerns about a “performative” consultant-led process, reluctance to back what has been drafted so far, as well as resolve to move forward and make “hard decisions.”

The meeting Thursday at district offices began with the 39-member committee arranging their chairs in a circle so each could take the two minutes allotted by RSP, the consultant leading the process, to share their thoughts with the group following recent community input sessions. Multiple committee members said the input they got from the community regarding a draft proposal for budget reductions was divided, and the committee itself seemed to reflect that reality as well.

Committee member Josh Spradlin, a former science teacher at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, who resigned last year to move to a different district, said he heard mixed viewpoints from the public, but that many expressed concerns about what some of the discussed budget reductions would ultimately look like. Spradlin said that was something the committee needed to work on.

“I got a lot of input that was pro one thing, a lot of input that was against one thing, and so it’s really hard to balance what that actually is,” Spradlin said, adding that he and the public kept coming back to one idea: “How do we fix something now and also look at how do we fix something 10 years from now, 20 years from now?”

Committee member Catherine Glidewell, a special education teacher in the district, said the community is pretty divided and the topic is very personal for a lot of people. Glidewell said in her conversations, some people shifted their understanding about what neighborhood schools are, and that some schools serve multiple neighborhoods but still have a community feeling.

“If some of these changes happen, our community could really take that into consideration and figure out how to make the community for the school that they were in,” she said.

Committee member Alicia Erickson, the parent of students at Woodlawn Elementary and Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, said one of the biggest things she heard at the input sessions was that the process had not truly been collaborative. She said rather than getting community and committee input at the beginning of the process, the committee was just given the same ideas from last year’s budget process to work with.

“One of the biggest things I have heard from the input sessions and that I believe strongly is that this process has been performative rather than collaborative,” Erickson said. “I believe that if we wanted to think outside of the box and truly have community input, it wouldn’t have been at the end, it would have been at the beginning.”

Committee member Nikki Perry, the parent of students at Cordley and LMCMS, said she heard from some teachers that having smaller classes is a priority, and that she thought the committee really needed to hear from teachers. Perry, who thought there would need to be hard decisions made about closing schools, also expressed some dissatisfaction with the process and was one of a few committee members who expressed a desire to make sure it is accurately represented. She said she felt committee members started the process saying they wanted to be creative problem solvers, but then a lot of the ideas and questions members submitted had not been adequately addressed.

“And I kind of feel like we’re at the point right now where we’re sorting the options that the district has given us,” Perry said. “… And so if we want to be part of creative problem solving, I guess we need some more facilitation, and if we are just kind of ranking the district’s priorities, I think then our committee’s work needs to be presented as that. Like that we gave feedback on the district’s ideas.”

The budget reduction proposal presented to the public was the result of a group activity in January where the committee, working from a list of options provided by the school district, was asked to create a modified scenario that added or took away from district administrators’ proposed budget reduction package. All committee members were given two stickers each to vote for the group’s proposal they wanted to be used to solicit public input. The proposal with the most stickers calls for increasing secondary class sizes (with a note to look at minimums and maximums); eliminating some middle school planning time; considering a four-day school week; reducing district administration; cutting two elective positions at the high schools; and repurposing/closing two elementary schools and one middle school.

photo by: USD 497/RSP

The budget reduction scenario presented to the public was the result of a group activity at the Futures Planning Committee meeting in January where the committee, working from a list of options provided by the school district, was asked to create a modified scenario that added or took away from district administrators’ proposed budget reduction package.

Others spoke to the consequences of last year’s budget reductions, which did not close schools but cut dozens of teachers and increased class sizes at the elementary level, among other cuts. Committee member Jill Anderson, a certified staff member at the Kennedy Early Childhood Center, said she was part of the discussions in 2005 that resulted in school closures, and that in the end those decisions ended up being OK. Anderson said ultimately the district needed to consider the staff.

“Staff is feeling the repercussions of hard decisions not being made last year, and us having to have multi-age, large classrooms,” Anderson said. “I mean, we are feeling that, and it’s (being felt) across the district. So I’m sitting in a place of protecting our staff, because we have excellent teachers and excellent paraeducators and we have this opportunity to say we hear you and we have to make some hard decisions.”

Some also said the process needed more transparency and data to indicate how the district is calculating the money it projects to save from closing schools. Committee member Suzie Johannes, parent of a Woodlawn student, said she felt that the process lacked transparency and trust, and that when members of the public asked her for more detail about the numbers, she could not give it to them. She said that the public deserved to see the math behind the district’s calculations.

“I went into this thinking I don’t want to see schools close, but if that’s the only choice, I’ll get behind that, but I just want to make sure the data adds up,” Johannes said. “And I guess I just feel like I can’t really say, from a due diligence point, that I can stand behind that because we got kind of a narrative behind what that looks like but we haven’t really talked about (school) boundaries, and I don’t know that those savings will really add up to the $300,000 we’ll save.”

District administrators initially proposed to cut an estimated $7.15 million to $9.1 million from the district’s budget through a combination of staff cuts, program reductions and the three school closures. The proposal called for “repurposing” two elementary schools and one middle school, with a projected savings of $300,000 to $400,000 for each elementary school and $325,000 for the middle school. The proposal did not identify specific schools. Staffing and program cuts make up the remainder of the district’s proposed cuts, with $6.17 million to $7.92 million in staff reductions and $58,000 in program reductions.

The amount of the district’s budget reduction package was based on a district estimate that it will take $9 million over the next one to two years to achieve competitive wages for staff; $1 million annually to cover annual cost increases; and approximately $6.2 million over the next 10 years to increase district cash balances. The district previously identified those three areas as budget priorities.

Committee member Kiley Luckett, the district’s mental health coordinator — who noted that from the committee’s first meeting she’s been saying the district needs to close schools — said that her main takeaway from the public input was that the community is divided and there was not much the committee could do about that.

“People are either for it or against it, and it was a blend of both, so there wasn’t anything really new that I gathered from that,” Luckett said. “I think the main takeaways are that we are a community divided and will remain a community divided and that’s OK. We all want what’s best for kids; we just think what’s best for kids is done in different ways.”

The committee ended Thursday’s meeting by breaking into groups to discuss potential changes to the budget proposal created through the activity in January and time frames for the budget reductions.

The committee began meeting in September under the facilitation of RSP and will have its last meeting on Feb. 15. The Lawrence school board, which will make the ultimate decision regarding any budget cuts and school closures, will hold a special meeting on Feb. 21 for its initial review of the committee’s recommendation. The board is scheduled to provide its direction to the district at its meeting on Feb. 27.


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