Majority of Lawrence school district budget committee calls for closing or repurposing two elementary schools, one middle school; some suggest alternative cuts

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. 15, 2023.

A committee that has been working to develop potential budget cuts for the Lawrence school district has concluded its facilitated process, which ended with a list of 10 cuts that committee members voted on whether or not they supported. However, a group of committee members who have expressed dissatisfaction with the facilitated process also came up with their own list of budget cut alternatives.

As part of a meeting Wednesday at district offices, the 39-member Futures Planning Committee — which includes district administrators, teachers, staff and community members — was polled regarding 10 budget reduction options. More than three-quarters of the members who voted as part of the activity said they supported closing or repurposing two elementary schools and one middle school. Specific schools have yet to be named, but the committee also received the results of an assessment of the district’s elementary schools as part of the meeting.

Specifically, 84% of the committee members who voted — 34 were present for Wednesday’s meeting — said they supported the district closing one elementary school and repurposing one middle school. Fewer members, though still more than three-quarters, were supportive of closing a second elementary school, with 76% of the committee members indicating support.

By contrast, the vote was roughly split regarding whether the district should save money by increasing class sizes at the middle and high school levels, to 28 and 30 students respectively, which would enable the district to cut middle and high school teachers. Elementary class sizes were increased as part of budget reductions put into place this school year, and some teachers and parents on the committee have spoken to the strain larger classes have put on teachers and the negative impact on students.

Specific schools that might be closed or repurposed have not been discussed as part of the committee process, but at the meeting Wednesday the committee also received the building scores from an architectural review completed on the district’s elementary schools. Each building was scored based on five factors: condition, count, size, accessibility and special program space. The count (based on the number of classrooms) and size of classrooms were the most heavily weighted in the scoring system, with count being weighted at 39% and size being weighted at 32% (meaning those factors account for 71% of a building’s score). As a result, the district’s older, smaller elementary schools generally scored the lowest, with Woodlawn, New York, and Pinckney each receiving a composite score of less than 65 out of 100. In response to a question about the middle schools, Doug Loveland, an architect working with the district on the review, said that Liberty Memorial Central scored significantly lower than the other three middle schools.

photo by: USD 497

A table shows the composite scores given to the district’s elementary buildings as part of an architectural review, as well as the weightings that made up score. Each building was scored based on five factors: condition, (classroom) count, (classroom) size, accessibility and special program space.

photo by: USD 497

A graph shows the composite scores given to the district’s elementary buildings as part of an architectural review. Each building was scored based on five factors: condition, (classroom) count, (classroom) size, accessibility and special program space.

The most popular budget reduction, with 87% of the committee members indicating support, was to pursue savings through solar power and/or renewable energy. The most unpopular reduction, with only 47% of the committee members indicating support (and the only reduction that received less than a majority), was transitioning to a four-day school week for students.

The 10 budget reductions, the savings the district estimates each cut would provide, and the committee’s votes for and against each are as follows:

• Increase middle school class sizes to 28 students ($3.25 million to $5.005 million): 52% yes, 48% no

• Increase high school class sizes to 30 students ($3.25 million to $5.005 million): 52% yes, 48% no

• Eliminate some middle school planning time ($1.3 million): 67% yes, 33% no

• Reduce district administration ($127,662 per position): 69% yes, 31% no

• Transition to a four-day student school week/five-day staff work week ($700,000): 47% yes, 53% no

• Reallocate payment to 403(b) employee retirement plan ($1.26 million): 76% yes, 24% no

• Savings in solar power and/or renewable energy (amount of savings unknown): 87% yes, 13% no

• Close one elementary school ($300,000 to $400,000): 84% yes, 16% no

• Close a second elementary school ($300,000 to $400,000): 76% yes, 24% no

• Repurpose one middle school ($325,000): 84% yes, 16% no

A printout of the 10 options also provided a space for committee members to provide “qualitative takeaways” about each cut, or additional aspects committee members want to be considered along with the budget scenario developed through the facilitated process.

As the Journal-World recently reported, at the committee’s last meeting some members expressed dissatisfaction with the process, which has been led by a consultant, RSP & Associates, that has done the district’s enrollment projections for the past several years. Some of the criticisms included that the committee has essentially just been asked for input on budget reduction options developed by district administrators and a lot of the ideas and questions members submitted were not adequately addressed or considered. Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, a group of committee members prepared a list of alternative reductions or savings.

The list includes 36 budget reductions (including some of the recommendations introduced by the district) that the group compiled by going through emails from committee members over the last few weeks. Some of the alternative cuts include tying all staffing levels to student enrollment, including administrative staffing levels; restructuring schools to create grade centers at smaller schools; changing to a four-day school week for high schools only; selling the district’s administrative office building and moving administrators into Kennedy Early Childhood Center (formerly Kennedy Elementary); conducting a review of the course catalog to streamline offerings; creating a “flagship” elementary school in East Lawrence (pending growth related to the Panasonic battery plant that’s under construction in nearby De Soto); charging fees for certain electives that are higher cost; and repurposing Liberty Memorial Central Middle School as an arts-based middle school, among other alternatives. The list was sent to the committee and various district administrators but was not discussed by the committee at large during the meeting.

After the first activity, the committee completed an activity to analyze the equity impact of the 10 budget reductions, considering questions such as “who is unintentionally being de-centered and/or marginalized?” The committee was broken into groups and each group was given one of the 10 reductions to analyze. After completing the review, the groups were asked to provide recommendations regarding what should and shouldn’t be cut from an equity perspective. The results of the activity were not shared with the committee at large but were compiled and will be provided along with the budget scenario created through the facilitated process. While doing the activity, one committee member expressed concern about whether the voices of all people of color, and Native American people in particular, were being heard. While an effort was made to include diverse members on the committee (the membership list includes each member’s race), there are no Native American or Latino members. The committee list includes a note that “district administration continues to fill a few gaps in representation.”

The Lawrence school board will receive the budget scenario during a special meeting on Feb. 21. The board will provide direction regarding budget cuts as part of its meeting Feb. 27.


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