photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World
The Lawrence school board earlier this week finalized $6.4 million in budget cuts and avoided closing any of the district’s 13 elementary schools.
But at a Wednesday afternoon meeting with the Lawrence chamber of commerce, district leaders made it clear they are far from convinced they will be able to avoid school closures in future years.
“I think we have to think about whether the true neighborhood school model is still a model we can continue to embrace,” Lawrence Superintendent Anthony Lewis told a crowd at The Chamber’s Government & Community Affairs committee meeting.
In a brief interview with the Journal-World after the event, Lewis said the discussion of closing schools — while off the table for the next school year — would come back up — perhaps as soon as for the 2023-2024 school year.
“We definitely will have to have that discussion again,” Lewis said. “We obviously will look at our enrollment in the fall and look at our projections. If we are not growing, I think the board made it clear that it definitely very well may be back on the table.”
The issue of growth in the community was a key one at the meeting, which included a crowd heavy with business owners and executives. Longtime school board member Shannon Kimball said a significant portion of the district’s financial challenges go back to assumptions made as the district put forward a $92.5 million bond issue to improve neighborhood elementary schools in 2013. The bond issue, which easily won the approval of voters, assumed enrollment growth of a half percent or 1% per year in the district.
“Our district has gone up and down in enrollment over the last decade, but we really haven’t grown that much,” Kimball said. “Assumptions were built into the bond planning that we did in 2012 and 2013 that just haven’t come to pass.”
Some members of the chamber crowd said the city had “shot itself in the foot” by being too restrictive in approving annexation of new lands that could be used to build new neighborhoods. Some said much of the district’s problems could be solved by 300 or 400 new homes that attracted families with school-aged children.
Others in the crowd pushed back on the idea that a growth model was likely to solve the district’s financial problems. They were unconvinced that building more houses would solve the city’s affordable housing problem, and as long as home prices remained high, it would be difficult to attract families with students to live in Lawrence.
School district officials said the affordable housing issue was a complex one, but Kimball said it was pretty clear that increased community growth would be a key factor in helping the district’s finances. The state’s school finance formula is based on the number of students a district serves.
“If our community is not growing, the adjustments we have to make are probably even bigger than they would be otherwise,” Kimball said.
Whether those adjustments include closing some of the district’s neighborhood elementary schools may be the big question facing the district for the next couple of years. Just because district leaders avoided closures during this most recent budget discussion provides no guarantees about future budget discussions.
“I believe this year’s budget conversation is the first step in a longer conversation that is going to have to take place,” Kimball said. “We are going to see more difficult decisions that will have to be made next year, and maybe even the year after, to reconfigure the way we operate.”
The idea of closing neighborhood schools has been contentious. A group of residents formed a Save Our Schools organization that made multiple arguments against school closures ranging from transportation and equity concerns to the fact that closing the schools would go against the wishes of voters who approved the 2013 bond issue to spend more than $90 million improving the schools. The district is still paying on the debt for those improvements.
Whether the community will see enough growth in school-aged population to ease the pressure on the district’s finances is uncertain. In addition, school board members said many of the policies and issues that might lead to that growth were beyond the purview of the school board.
“Yes, we have a budget issue,” school board President Erica Hill told the crowd, “but this is not just a school district issue. It is a community issue.”
Kimball expressed concern about whether it is realistic to believe the community will grow in ways that alleviate the district’s challenges with elementary school buildings.
“It basically boils down to this: We have a long-standing math problem in this district,” Kimball said. “I know the community doesn’t want to hear this, but we have 13 elementary buildings, and we have about 4,200 elementary students.
“There are very, very few districts in the state of Kansas, and even elsewhere, that operate the way we do.”
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World