‘Is the raise going to be worth it?’: Local teachers union to push for savings from school closures, cuts to go to teacher wages

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

Members of the public fill the meeting room of the Lawrence school board on March 27, 2023.

In the wake of a late-night vote to close two Lawrence elementary schools, the local teachers union is ready to support teachers and work to ensure that the money saved from closures and other cuts goes to boost teacher pay.

Following an hour and a half of public comments Monday evening calling on the board to leave schools open, the Lawrence school board voted 4-3, with Carole Cadue-Blackwood, Kay Emerson and Past President Erica Hill opposed, to approve a resolution to close Broken Arrow and Pinckney at the end of this school year. The board also approved the elimination of some middle school classes and schedule changes to account for a previously approved 50-position reduction of middle and high school teachers.

District officials have said they plan to offer elementary teachers from closed schools opportunities to transfer to positions in new schools, and they hope to handle the 50 secondary cuts through attrition and transfers, rather than layoffs. Emerson Hoffzales, interim president of the Lawrence Education Association, the local teachers union, said that first and foremost it was important staff were supported in the process and provided good transfer choices.

“Making sure that teachers are placed in a position, in a building, that they are comfortable and will thrive in, where they can continue to support their students and families,” Hoffzales said.

The board has not yet specified how the savings from closures and teacher cuts will be divided among the district’s three budget priorities of increasing pay for teachers and staff, addressing rising costs, and allocating money for the district’s reserve fund. Regarding upcoming budget decisions, Hoffzales, who uses they/them pronouns, said their goal is to hold the district and school board accountable to ensure as much of the savings from the cuts are reallocated to wages as possible. They said teachers were disappointed in the level of raises they received after the district made $6.4 million in cuts last year, which included the elimination of 72 teacher positions, an increase in elementary classroom size and the creation of multigrade elementary classrooms. Hoffzales said there are already concerns among teachers that this year’s cuts may be a repeat of last year’s disappointment.

The Lawrence school board convenes for its meeting on March 27, 2023.

“This is going to be a lot of extra work on teachers,” Hoffzales said. “… Staff are even questioning, is the raise going to be worth it? And so my goal is to make sure to hold the district and the board accountable and make sure as much of those cuts that are made go to wages.”

The district and LEA began discussing the union’s contract for the upcoming school year in September. Hoffzales said the goal is to continue to provide pay increases for additional years of education, catch up on missed pay increases for additional years of service, and increase the maximum pay for the most experienced educators.

Hoffzales said they understood that the board had to make very hard decisions and that, personally, they did feel the board was advocating more for educators than in years past.

“I know every board member on there is an advocate for education, and that is something we appreciate and value,” they said.

The board’s vote occurred about 11:15 on Monday night. As parents and community members still in the board’s meeting room reacted, some with tears, board president Shannon Kimball apologized for the hurt that the decision caused.

“This is the most difficult decision I’ve ever made as a board member,” Kimball said. “And I am sorry for the hurt that I know that you are feeling.”

During public comment, the board heard multiple concerns from parents, students and teachers, including concerns about how closing the schools would affect disadvantaged students. Specific concerns included some students being transferred to schools without federally funded title programs that are only available at certain low-income schools; longer walks to school along busy streets; and the physical resources of laundry and shower facilities at Pinckney school

Board member Kelly Jones also said she wanted to acknowledge that the decision would have consequences.

“I want to just acknowledge that that vote will have serious consequences for teachers and students, and I apologize for that component of it,” Jones said. “It was certainly one of the harder votes I’ve made. It’s hard sitting up here when two things are true at the same time.”

Jones, who is one of the board’s representatives in contract negotiations with the district’s unions, also said she hoped the district could apply any savings gained by the closures to increasing wages, funding contingency teachers to lower class sizes, and reducing the number of multigrade classrooms.

Cadue-Blackwood, noting that her family moved to Lawrence in 1978 and that she attended Lawrence schools since kindergarten, said she understood the boundaries and socioeconomics of the city, and that factored into her decision.

“I understand the invisible boundaries that are in this town, that have plagued this town for generations,” Cadue-Blackwood said.

Cadue-Blackwood also said she took under consideration the location of public housing development and other subsidized housing, as well as the Douglas County Health Equity Report, which among its many data points indicates there is a difference in life expectancy of about 10 years between different areas of the county.

“This makes it very real,” she said. “These are not just numbers, these are people. This is where I grew up.”

Emerson said she did not want to be part of decisions to close schools.

“I know we can do better, and I implore us to do better,” Emerson said.

Hill said that the district had amazing teachers and educators and that she wanted to make clear her “no” vote was not because she did not support them. GR Gordon-Ross and Vice President Paula Vann did not make additional commentary after the vote.

The district plans to continue to use both school buildings. District officials have said Broken Arrow could potentially be used to expand space for adjacent Billy Mills Middle School and house the district’s center for Native American students. The board voted in February to repurpose Liberty Memorial Central Middle School into a public magnet school beginning in the 2024-2025 school year with a yet-to-be determined new curricular focus, such as arts-based, dual-language or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Potential plans for Pinckney are to use the school to relocate district programs currently operated at the former East Heights school.The board already approved reducing middle and high school staff by 50 teachers, which is expected to save the district $3.25 million annually. The district estimates closing one elementary school would save $300,000 to $400,000 annually.

In other business, the board voted 4-3, with Hill, Cadue-Blackwood and Emerson opposed, to approve middle school curriculum changes related to the reduction in middle school staffing. The changes include eliminating the sixth-grade health course and moving that content to other areas; reducing physical education to every other day; eliminating some elective options; and reducing the day from eight to seven periods. Planned schedule changes also include a later start and release time, which would allow a common teacher plan time before school starts.

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

People rally against the closure of elementary schools ahead of the school board meeting at district headquarters on Monday, March 27, 2023.


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