Lawrence school district sets aside funding to cover unexpected $500,000 energy bill as it awaits legal challenge to fee

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Lawrence Public Schools district offices pictured in April 2021.

The Lawrence school district has set aside funding to cover a $500,000 bill it received for its energy use in February, but hopes the dollars will never be spent.

District finance director Kathy Johnson told the Lawrence school board during its meeting on Monday that the unexpected energy bill, which was associated with a deep freeze throughout a significant part of the country in February, is being challenged through a legal coalition led by the Kansas Association of School Boards.

As the Journal-World previously reported, the district received a bill of $498,000 for its February utility costs, which is 900% more than its normal cost of $54,000. Johnson said on Monday that the district is disputing a little more than $392,000 of that bill, roughly 79% of the charge.

However, in the meantime, the district needed to reflect the expense in its current budget, which ends on Wednesday, while the charge is still in dispute. Johnson said the dollars have been set aside in the budget’s contingency reserve fund until there is a resolution to the challenge, which could take more than a month.

If the challenge is successful and the dollars do not need to be spent, Johnson told the Journal-World the funding that was set aside would be “freed up” within the contingency reserve fund to be used for other funding priorities in the future.

Meanwhile, the district is in the process of crafting its 2021-22 school year budget. Johnson said she will report to the board during its next meeting on July 12 the estimated milly levy rates.

In other business, the board members discussed its 2021-22 meeting calendar, which proposes meeting once a month in person and then meeting a second time virtually, if necessary.

Traditionally, the board meets in person twice a month — on the second and fourth Mondays of each month. But the pandemic disrupted that process and the board began to meet virtually for months, much like other local government agencies.

However, some board members expressed reservations about the change. Carole Cadue-Blackwood said she felt the board needs to focus on building trust with voters after the pandemic and only meeting in person once a month would hinder that. Shannon Kimball said she feared the change would slow down the board’s policy work because the board needs to consider a policy during two separate meetings before it can be finalized.

Meanwhile, Board President Kelly Jones said she felt it was worth giving a try, gauging how often the virtual meeting is used and making a change back to the traditional mode during the school year if needed.

The board will continue the discussion and consider approving its meeting calendar during its next meeting.

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