Lawrence school district consultant projects Panasonic plant won’t have big enrollment impact in next 5 years

photo by: USD 497

The Lawrence school board meets at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive, as part of its meeting on Jan. 9, 2023.

While consultants that completed enrollment projections for the Lawrence school district said the future Panasonic plant in nearby De Soto represents some unknowns, they are not projecting the plant will significantly impact district enrollment within the next five years.

As part of its meeting Monday, the school board received a report from the consulting firm RSP & Associates, which the district hired to complete enrollment projections and other analyses, as well as to facilitate a committee that will develop a budget recommendation for the board. RSP projects enrollment will decline by about 300 students over the next five years, projections that will be used to plan staffing levels, potential school closures and other budget decisions for the district.

Looking to a map included with the report that showed where current housing development is occurring and where it is projected to occur within the next five and 10 years, Robert Schwarz, of RSP & Associates, said that those patterns may change if people who own land decide to develop it. Schwarz said while RSP thinks there will be changes, the plant represents some unknowns.

“We think there’s going to be some changes, not quite known what the impact of Panasonic and what that may mean for future residential, specifically on the east side,” Schwarz said. “So that’s something we’ll want to keep watching, because that may be something that pops in a way that right now, at the time of the study, we’re not fully confident in knowing what that impact might be.”

photo by: USD 497

A graphic created by RSP & Associates shows anticipated development in the Lawrence school district.

Panasonic plans to build a $4 billion battery plant for electric vehicles in De Soto, which is about 12 miles east of Lawrence. The plant is currently under construction and expected to begin producing batteries in early 2025. It’s anticipated the plant will employ 4,000 people and be a catalyst for the whole region due to the suppliers and other local businesses needed, which are expected to create up to 4,000 additional jobs. Cities throughout the area are anticipating population growth as a result of the plant.

Schwarz added that the plant could represent an incredible opportunity for surrounding areas. Superintendent Anthony Lewis asked Schwarz to clarify if additional homes the Lawrence school district may see as a result of plant would happen in the six to 10 year range, or what the timeframe would be. Schwarz responded that he thought it would be “toward five years and beyond.”

RSP projected that the overall enrollment in the district will decrease by 318 students, to about 9,570 students, by the 2027-28 school year, or by about 3.3%. Elementary enrollment is forecast to decrease by 24 students over the next five years (-0.5%), middle school enrollment by 128 students (-5.9%), and high school enrollment by 166 students (-5%). As far as anticipated development in Lawrence, the projections identified an additional 1,800 potential housing units in the next decade, but the report predicts that the majority of the increase will happen in the last five years of that time, “which is a limiting factor in immediate enrollment growth.”

photo by: USD 497

A graph created by RSP & Associates shows past and projected enrollment in the Lawrence school district.

Based in part on those projections, district administrators recently proposed a budget reduction package that would close three schools. The proposal would 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. Specifically, the proposal calls 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 does not identify specific schools. Staffing and program cuts make up the remainder of the proposed cuts, with $6.17 million to $7.92 million in staff reductions and $58,000 in program reductions.

Board member Kelly Jones said that a decline of about 20 elementary students over five years was pretty consistent, and she asked Schwarz if the number of students the district has now at the elementary level is the number of students it might want to plan for moving forward.

Schwarz said yes, that statistically the good news was that the district’s elementary enrollment is stable. He added, however, that while stable elementary enrollment could help inform the potential future of elementary buildings, considerations would be different for the other grade levels.

School Board President Shannon Kimball said for her probably the biggest takeaway was that the district would have declining enrollment over the next five years. She said she didn’t think, as a community, people really understood what that is going to look like for the district.

The report notes that projecting enrollment is not a science, and that some “assumptions” happen that may lead to greater enrollment while others toward a smaller enrollment. Schwarz said enrollment may increase more than forecast if the area sees an increasing share of live births, incoming kindergarteners or other demographic shifts, or if the community sees increases in housing development, economic growth and other development. Those same factors, in the negative, could result in a decrease from the projected enrollment.

The report also updated the board on the Futures Planning Committee process. The committee began meeting in September, with RSP facilitating the six meetings that have occurred since then. The committee will discuss whether anything should be added or taken away from district administrators’ proposed budget reduction package as part of its meeting on Jan. 11. Two public input sessions are scheduled for Jan. 17 and 18, and the committee is scheduled to provide its recommendation to the school board in February. The board ultimately will make final decisions regarding the district’s budget and any decisions to close schools or cut staff and programs.


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