Board begins to agree on budget cuts that would lead to multi-age classrooms, fewer teachers in Lawrence Public Schools

photo by: Journal-World

Lawrence Public Schools district offices pictured in April 2021.

More kids in classrooms. Fewer teachers in schools.

Both appeared to be likelihoods in the Lawrence school district next year after school board members spent a couple of hours Tuesday sifting through nearly $6.5 million of proposed budget cuts.

The Lawrence school board did not make any final decisions at a special work session on Tuesday evening, but a majority of board members expressed support for budget cuts that will produce a different feel at school buildings across the district next year.

They also may produce some unemployment among the ranks of district employees.

“These are tough decisions,” Superintendent Anthony Lewis told board members, “but I do think we have a plan for where we need to go.”

One part of that plan — if approved at next week’s regular school board meeting — would involve a new type of classroom. Multiple grade levels would be located in the same classroom taught by the same teacher. For example, first and second graders might be in the same room with the same teacher. Not every classroom would feature the multi-grade strategy, but some would.

That strategy is expected to reduce the district’s need for elementary school teachers by 34 full-time positions. Several school board members on Tuesday said they wanted district leaders to figure out how to reduce those positions through attrition and retirements rather than through layoffs.

But board members were told that might not be possible.

“I don’t want to make promises that we can’t keep on that,” Patrick Kelly, the district’s chief academic officer, told board members.

Lewis said he also wasn’t comfortable “guaranteeing” that there would be no layoffs associated with the staff restructuring. But he said the district would make an effort to allow employees who are losing a position to take another position elsewhere in the district. Through natural staff turnover, the district hires about 110 new teachers each year, Lewis said.

However, teachers are required to have certain certifications to teach certain classes. Issues such as those may not make it possible for every teacher to find a new position in the district.

Board member Kelly Jones said she was worried such uncertainty might cause good teachers to start looking elsewhere for work.

“I’m worried about retention, to be frank,” Jones said.

“So are we,” Kelly said.

Board members also were told that it is too early to say which elementary schools, or even which grade levels, might suffer the most cuts. That information won’t become clear until district officials start to see preliminary enrollment numbers for the next school year, and also until they start seeing which teachers are choosing to retire or otherwise leave the district voluntarily.

“We are concerned about these cuts,” Lewis said. “No one wants to make these cuts.”

Technically, school board members are being asked to make two different types of cuts. One set is legally required to meet a state law that says the district’s budget must be balanced. Board members were told on Tuesday that about $4.27 million worth of cuts are needed — mainly due to declining enrollment in the district — to meet that state law requirement.

Anything above that amount is not required to be done under state law. But board members on Tuesday expressed support for an additional $2.8 million in cuts because they believe that money will be necessary to provide raises to district staff. The district is estimating that would fund a 3% to 4% wage increase for many of the district’s employees.

But in a twist, some of those wage increases will be funded by eliminating jobs in the district. In addition to the 36 full-time positions in elementary classrooms, a majority of board members also expressed support for eliminating: 10 unspecified staff positions at the district’s high schools, two secretary positions at the district’s high schools and several other cuts that were possible but not defined. Those included possible reductions in custodians, teachers for gifted programs, and special education professionals.

Board members did push back on a few recommended cuts. A majority of board members said they weren’t yet comfortable with endorsing the idea of eliminating the girls gymnastics program at the high school level.

Several board members also said they want more information about how a $605,000 proposed cut would change the district’s library services in school buildings. Jones and board member Kay Emerson also pushed district leaders to provide a cost estimate for hiring teacher aides for some of the elementary classrooms that may have multiple grade levels in the same room.

Board member Shannon Kimball said she also wanted further discussion about a more targeted plan to reduce some administrative salaries, which currently is not a part of the recommended cuts.

Tuesday’s meeting, since it was a work session, did not include any public comment. But the board is scheduled to meet on Monday for formal consideration of the budget cuts. Public comment will be accepted at that meeting.

Board President Erica Hill told her colleagues that the Monday meeting will be an important one because the district is running out of time to settle on a plan.

“Come Monday, we have to make a decision,” she said.


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