School leader: ‘What’s going on in our larger community?’ Lawrence’s enrollments decline even as the city’s population grows

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Photo Illustration

Take a drive in the countryside northeast of Lawrence, and be prepared to find something that many Lawrence residents likely would deem odd.

There, along Kansas Highway 32 in adjacent Leavenworth County — just a bit past Linwood and that community’s livestock auction barn — is a big, new building under construction. It is a new elementary school for the Basehor-Linwood school district.

In Lawrence, the idea of needing to build a new elementary school is an odd thought. Talk in recent weeks has been dominated by the idea of closing elementary schools in Lawrence.

But others could argue that the oddity isn’t happening near Linwood, but rather in Lawrence. A couple of sets of numbers would serve as evidence. In the last decade, the community of Basehor — the main community in the Basehor-Linwood school district — has grown by 33%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Its school enrollment has grown by 32%, according to numbers from the Kansas Department of Education. Population and enrollment growth match in ways you might expect.

Lawrence, during the same decade, had its population grow by 7%, but enrollment in Lawrence Public Schools declined by 4%. If we are ranking oddities, find room on the list for that one.

There are two types of school districts in Kansas — those that grow and those that shrink — and their fates often travel in different directions. For much of the last decade, Lawrence flirted with joining the club of districts that are shrinking in enrollment. When the pandemic hit, it pushed Lawrence over that red line.

“It was a shock to me,” said longtime Lawrence resident Dean Palos, who as the retired director of planning for prosperous Johnson County is accustomed to understanding growth trends of communities. “I didn’t know that was happening.”

What type of growth?

The declining enrollment has not been a shock to Shannon Kimball, the longest-serving member on the Lawrence school board. Well, at least, it is not a shock anymore.

At one point, district leaders did expect something different. As the district was preparing to ask voters for approval for millions in school improvements — voters approved $92.5 million in 2013 and $87 million in 2017 — officials were projecting school enrollment to grow by 0.5% to 1% per year, Kimball said.

And why wouldn’t it? Lawrence is one of the few cities in the state that can reliably count on population growth. But in an interview with the Journal-World last week, Kimball said there’s more to consider than that.

“Sure, maybe we have had more population growth, but growth in which populations?” she asked. “Are you talking about growth in families of child-rearing age … or are we talking about retirees and young professionals and students?”

Lawrence should get some definitive answers on that soon. Data from the 2020 Census broken down by age should come out this summer. In the meantime, the Census provides estimates through its American Community Survey.

The survey shows that from 2010 to 2019, people ages 5 to 14 made up 9.7% of Lawrence’s population in 2010 but had fallen to 9.5% in 2019. That’s not a major drop, although it is possible the harder Census numbers will show a different trend.

But the numbers do make it clear that Lawrence didn’t have any luck in growing its number of families with children. If you are not growing your families, it will be tough to grow public school enrollment, especially if there are more private schools competing for a limited number of students in a community.

Declining birthrates are a national issue, but attractive communities can still grow their family numbers by simply getting more than their fair share of families to locate in their city. Olathe from 2010 to 2019 saw its share of 5- to 14-year-olds grow from 16.2% to 16.7%. It needed every one of them to keep its schools growing. Olathe’s public schools increased enrollment by 4.6% for the decade, while posting overall population growth of nearly 11%, fueled heavily by growth of the 65 and older population.

And yes, college communities have been able to grow their number of families, too. Manhattan saw its share of 5- to 14-year-olds increase from 6.8% to 7.8%. Its public school enrollment for the decade grew by 6%, even though its total population only grew by 3.4%.

In other words, Manhattan was getting more than its fair share of families. There are signs of that happening in this area too — just not in Lawrence.

Instead, look about 5 miles to the east in Eudora. The community of about 6,400 people saw its population grow by about 4% in the decade. That was roughly half the growth rate Lawrence experienced. But while Lawrence saw its public school enrollment decline by 4%, Eudora saw its enrollment grow by 8%.

How many families who used to choose Lawrence are now choosing Eudora? Or maybe De Soto or Tonganoxie or Basehor, which all posted enrollment growth for the decade? The Journal-World examined enrollment trends for 17 school districts largely along the Kansas River corridor between Manhattan and Kansas City. Results varied, as some districts, like Topeka, saw declines in both population and enrollment. Others, like Basehor, saw huge population and enrollment increases.

Two districts stood out for having a significant mismatch. Lawrence was one, and the Shawnee Mission school district — which includes parts of Overland Park, Lenexa and other prosperous portions of Johnson County — was the other. The district had a 5.4% decline in enrollment for the decade despite a 12% increase in population.

The Journal-World didn’t look much at the school districts south of Kansas City, but it is worth noting that area has been growing rapidly. Kansas City’s growth pattern in the last two decades took a southward turn, away from Lawrence. In the 1990s and 2000s, there were some who expected the strong growth that is happening in places like Gardner, Spring Hill and Louisburg to be happening in Lawrence.

You can get a peek at what might have been by looking at Spring Hill’s enrollment figures. Enrollment there is up 78% for the decade, with population growth up about 30% during the time period. Those are the numbers of a family magnet.

Those type of growth numbers have long been out of Lawrence’s equation. Instead, the hope was for 0.5% to 1% growth per year for enrollment. This latest school budget crisis largely goes back to the fact that even those numbers did not pan out.

“We have not achieved that on a consistent basis,” Kimball said. “That leads me to ask what is going on in our larger community?”

Pandemic pain

It would be easy to blame everything on the pandemic. Indeed, the numbers do suggest that Lawrence got hit harder than many of the other districts the Journal-World examined.

Lawrence experienced a sharp drop in enrollment in the 2020-2021 school year. Nearly every district saw an enrollment drop as virtual learning took hold, and many parents opted for home school or private schools. When you factor out enrollment figures for Lawrence’s separate Virtual School — which saw a boost during that pandemic year — Lawrence’s brick-and-mortar enrollment fell by 6.2% for the year. That was nearly tied for the highest percentage decline of the 17 schools examined, nearly matching the 6.3% decline of the Kansas City, Kansas, school district. (With the Virtual School numbers included, enrollment was down 3.4%.)

For some, that may lead to a question about whether Lawrence’s masking and attendance policies during the pandemic led to the differences. That wasn’t where Kimball’s mind went when asked about Lawrence’s below-average numbers in the pandemic.

Instead, she thinks Lawrence’s pandemic numbers are just a continuation of a trend that was already underway. The pandemic heightened the challenges, but it didn’t create them. If you look at enrollment growth figures prior to the 2020-2021 school year — before the pandemic started taking its toll — they do show some weakness.

From the 2011-2012 school year through the 2019-2020 school year, Lawrence’s enrollment was up 2.6% when you factor out the Virtual School (up 2.3% with the Virtual School) Those numbers underperformed many districts that were experiencing population growth. For example: Olathe posted pre-pandemic enrollment growth of 7.6%; Manhattan, 7.3%; De Soto 8.7%; Eudora 11.9%; Tonganoxie 4.1%; Kansas City 14.6%; Piper 38.1%; Basehor-Linwood 26.8%; Blue Valley 6%; and even the Shawnee Heights district on the eastern edge of Topeka posted 3.8% growth.

Kimball said Lawrence has to look at more than just than the pandemic to understand its enrollment struggles.

“Think about the conversations we are having about affordable housing and good job opportunities,” Kimball said. “All of those things have a significant impact on whether we see enrollment growth in our schools.”

Palos, the retired planner, also said housing choice may be a conversation worth having. Families with children often are looking for a particular type of home. As the Journal-World has reported, the type of housing stock built in Lawrence changed dramatically in the last decade.

A 2020 analysis by the Journal-World found that in the last decade, 2.5 apartments were built for every one single-family home constructed. That’s a reversal from the 1990s and 2000s, when more single-family homes were built than apartments. Historically, apartments in Lawrence have not attracted large numbers of families with school-age children.

But Palos was talking about an even more different type of housing choice situation. He noted that a good portion of Lawrence’s housing stock, especially in neighborhoods that have seen declining elementary school enrollments, consists of older homes. He’s been a longtime resident of Old West Lawrence, which is full of homes that were built at the turn of the 20th century.

“They may not suit the needs of newer families,” he said. “They want big rooms. These houses aren’t designed for that.”

In his neighborhood, which is in central Lawrence just west of downtown, it is noticeable.

“I’ve seen this neighborhood age,” he said. “There are just not as many kids as there used to be.”

Who are we?

The question, of course, is what to do about it.

“That’s the big question, isn’t it?” Kimball said. “Unfortunately, it is an issue that the Board of Education has little to no control over, other than to be advocates for family-friendly policies in general.”

In the meantime, the district will take several actions that are focused more on managing finances than on boosting enrollment growth. Options discussed have ranged from reducing administrative salaries to laying off teachers to cutting sports programs, and until recently included a heavy dose of discussions about school closures.

While those won’t lead to an answer of how to start growing enrollment — and family numbers — in Lawrence, Palos thinks it is important that the community tackle that topic.

“The neighborhoods are kind of the heartbeat of communities,” he said. “Having young people there is not essential. There are areas in Kansas City where they are busing kids and have been closing schools for years.

“But I think part of what makes a community great is having elementary schools. It was the model for building neighborhoods.”

Kimball has been a supporter of neighborhood schools too. She does worry, though, that the state’s school finance formula doesn’t do enough to support districts that put an emphasis on having neighborhood schools versus districts that have just a handful of attendance centers that serve an entire community. She characterizes the current moment as one where “the values of some parts of our community are crashing up against the policy choices that have been made by the state Legislature.”

That’s the opening line of a big conversation, but Kimball said the community should have those types of discussions.

“I think it is important to have a conversation in our community about factors that are outside of the control of the Board of Education that are influencing our numbers,” she said.

But the conversation can’t be entirely about what lawmakers in Topeka are or are not doing for the Lawrence district. There needs to be some introspection too, she said.

“I think all of this speaks to the need for the community to have a better understanding of itself,” Kimball said. “I think we all have some misperceptions.”


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.