Lawrence school district expects spending ability to decrease by $1.5 million this coming school year

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Lawrence Public Schools district offices pictured in April 2021.

The Lawrence school district will see a decrease in spending authority during the upcoming school year because of a decrease in enrollment last year.

However, local homeowners will also see a slight decrease in taxes toward the district’s funding.

The school board on Monday heard a report on the district’s budget from Finance Director Kathy Johnson, who explained that the district plans to spend about $107.7 million from its general fund during the 2021-22 school year. That’s a decrease of about $1.5 million from the district’s planned spending from the general fund during the 2020-21 school year, when the district approved spending $109.2 million.

The board gave initial approval to the proposed budget by setting the mill levies and maximum budget authority. The board will consider finalizing the budget after holding a public hearing on Sept. 13.

The decrease in spending is mostly caused by a significant drop in student enrollment last school year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The decrease in enrollment also led to the district seeing less revenue come in the last school year, which led to the district cutting the budget on the fly.

Johnson said the district actually spent around $104.7 million during the school year, about $4.5 million less that it had planned. She said some of that spending reduction came from freezing capital outlay projects and leaving open staff and faculty positions unfilled. The board also approved a plan to close Kennedy Elementary School and move students to nearby elementary schools to save a little more than $700,000, the Journal-World previously reported.

“COVID, unfortunately, has put the district in reactive mode recently, and actually survival mode to some degree, ” Johnson said. “We had to live within that new world,” she added.

Now heading into the 2021-22 school year, Johnson said the district doesn’t expect to see any funding for the board to put toward new spending ideas. So if the board chooses to increase spending for certain areas, it will need to make cuts elsewhere, she said.

One area the board may be considering is increasing funding toward classified staff pay.

The board and district leaders are currently negotiating a contract with PAL-CWA, a newly created labor union representing classified staff. Classified staff is a category that includes paraeducators, custodians, office and cafeteria staff and other employees who aren’t licensed teachers.

Board member Kelly Jones noted that the district still has authority for specific spending, and the board can still make changes to budget line items before finalizing it next month.

During public comment, representatives for PAL-CWA asked the board to do just that. Paul Brecht, a paraeducator and member of the union, said classified staff are paid less than a living wage and the district needs to find a way to provide a meaningful pay increase.

“We know that money will not come out of nowhere, but unless you can successfully petition the state of Kansas to drastically increase the cut we get from taxes, then it needs to come from somewhere within our district,” Brecht said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Additionally, the budget situation could slightly improve later during the school year. While the enrollment decrease last year was mostly caused by the pandemic, it’s possible some students who left the district could return, leading to an enrollment increase. The district would then see some additional funding later during the school year. However, Johnson said the bulk of the funding increases associated with an enrollment increase isn’t provided to the district until the following school year.

Meanwhile, the proposed 2021-22 school year budget comes with a slight decrease in the district’s overall tax levy. Johnson said the budget includes a 0.242 decrease to its overall mill levy, or about a $5 decrease in the amount of taxes the owner of a $200,000 home pays each year.

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