School closures, admin cuts, and 4-day school week among ideas Lawrence district’s planning committee wants to consider
photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World
Working from a list of options provided by the school district, a group exercise completed by members of the Futures Planning Committee resulted in all but one group electing to repurpose or close schools to address the district’s budget goals. The vast majority of the groups also wanted to make cuts to administration.
The committee, which is tasked with providing a budget recommendation to the school board, met on Wednesday at district offices. The committee was asked to discuss whether anything should be added or taken away from district administrators’ proposed budget reduction package, which calls for closing three schools and making various non-administrative staff and program cuts. If groups chose to remove any of the components of the district’s package, they were instructed to replace them with a cut from a list of 14 possible cuts provided by the district so the total amount of budget reductions remained roughly consistent.
The committee was broken into seven groups, with six of the groups electing to repurpose or close two or three schools. Five of the groups also called for reducing district administration, which the proposal from administration did not call for. Another common addition, with four groups selecting it, was to consider going to a four-day school week for one or all grade levels. Four groups also wanted to reduce electives at the secondary level.
“The only way you get to a realistic budget number is to eliminate people, because that’s where the money is,” one committee member said. “So you have to eliminate the positions, but that needs to be done across the board, so that you make the cuts where the kids are not.”
Ginna Wallace, a planner with RSP, the consultant the district hired to facilitate the process, told the committee ahead of the activity that the result was not the committee’s final recommendation, but would be the budget reduction scenario that would be presented to the public next week for input. She said the goal was to choose budget reduction options that resulted in similar savings as the district’s proposal.
“We are trying to get to that $8 (million) to $10 million goal,” Wallace said.
Specifically, district administrators’ 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. 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 district’s proposed cuts, with $6.17 million to $7.92 million in staff reductions and $58,000 in program reductions.
The most significant staffing reduction would be increasing middle and high school class sizes — to 28 and 30 students, respectively — for an estimated savings of $3.25 million to about $5 million. The other staffing reductions are eliminating some middle school planning time for an estimated savings of $1.3 million; reducing student support staff by $100,000; reducing classified staff by $258,422; and reallocating district payments to staff 403(b) accounts for an estimated savings of $1.26 million. The district’s proposed program reductions would consist of $25,000 in reductions to athletics, $8,000 in reductions to other extracurricular activities, and $25,000 in reductions to curriculum and instruction.
The list of alternative cuts handed out to committee members included 14 budget reduction options and an estimate for how much each reduction would save the district. The handout noted that some of the options were contract provisions that would need to be negotiated with the district’s teacher and staff unions. The options and their cost estimates are as follows:
•Reducing district administration: $127,662 per position
•Reducing building administration: $113,455 per position
•Reducing elementary, middle and high school staff: $65,000 per position
•Reducing middle school plan time: $1.3 million
•Reducing classified support services/staff: $22,255 to $64,804 per position
•Reducing student support services/staff: $27,880 to $67,064 per position
•Reducing early childhood services: $65,000 per position
•Increasing class size: $65,000 per position
•Eliminating Wednesday early dismissal: no cost estimate
•Revising the staff leave policy: $160,000
•Changing to a four-day school week: $700,000
•Reducing elective class offerings: $65,000 per position
•Repurposing/closing one elementary school: $300,000 to $400,000 per school
•Repurposing/closing one middle school: $325,000 to repurpose school, $550,000 to $650,000 to close school
Committee member Alicia Erickson, a member of the group Save Our Schools, said that she was frustrated that the committee was being asked to pick from a list of options to come up with their recommendation. Erickson said those parameters were steering the results of the activity.
“We are being given these certain things,” Erickson expressed to others at her table. “… There are not creative ideas being introduced.”
Erickson’s group ended up suggesting multiple alternatives that did not come from the district’s list of 14 cuts. Instead of closing two elementary schools and a middle school, the group suggested accomplishing the same savings through creating schools that served kindergarten through eighth grades. The group also suggested consolidating small class sizes, hiring adjuncts to teach college-level Advanced Placement courses, exploring a four-day school week for high school students or a reformatting of the school year, and selling the former Centennial school building in order to save on utilities, property insurance and landscaping costs that come from the general operating fund.
A few other groups also suggested alternatives that did not come from the district’s options, including pursuing savings through the use of solar power and other renewable energy sources; turning Liberty Memorial Central Middle School into a performing arts school; and building a new, much larger elementary school on the site of the former East Heights School.
After each group presented modifications to the district’s proposal, all committee members were given two stickers each to vote for the proposal they wanted to be used to solicit public input. The proposal with the most stickers (20) 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. It also called for looking into solar power or other renewable energy.
Wallace told committee members that they did not have to agree with everything on the page to vote for a scenario, and that the proposal would be revised further after the input meetings.
The amount of the district’s budget reduction package is 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.
Two public input sessions are scheduled for Jan. 17 and 18, which the committee will use to inform its recommendation to the school board. Both public input sessions will take place from 6 to 7:30 p.m., with the Jan. 17 meeting taking place at Free State High School, 4700 Overland Drive, and the Jan. 18 meeting taking place at Lawrence High School, 1901 Louisiana St.
The committee began meeting in September under the facilitation of RSP and will provide its recommendation to the 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.