Frequently Asked Questions
There's a lot of misinformation circulating about how the school board actually functions and the reasons why decisions are made. Here are some of the questions I get asked the most, along with my answers.
Q. Why did you vote to close two elementary schools at the end of the 2022-23 school year?
A. The school closure discussion has been the most difficult work I have done in my twelve years on the board. The sadness I feel over these changes to our district and our community has been present throughout the past year. But throughout these discussions, I have kept front and center my commitment to the board’s goals of improving student outcomes for all students in USD 497 and to providing competitive wages for our teachers and our support staff.
Our students and our district cannot afford for the board to continue applying band-aid solutions to our budget challenges. The decision to close buildings was one of the least bad choices of a range of very difficult choices. It is also a decision that has helped the board make significant progress in addressing these challenges and achieving these goals.
Here are some of the facts that led me to make these very difficult decisions:
In 2008-2009, base state aid per pupil in Kansas was $4,400 per student. In 2022-2023, it was $4,846 per student. That is a $446 increase over 14 years. Prices have increased about 42% since 2008, but our state funding has only increased just over 10%.
The cost of educating students in very small buildings far outstrips our funding. In 2020-2021, our smallest elementary school (199 students) cost $15,757 per student. Our largest elementary school that year (over 450 students) cost $9,485 per student. That is a difference of $6,272 per student.
In 2020-21, of the district’s 14 elementary schools, only 4 enrolled more than 400 students. For decades, the majority of USD 497’s elementary buildings have had very small enrollments; in many years the district has had multiple buildings with fewer than 250 students (6 of the elementary schools had fewer than 250 students in 2020-2021).
USD 497 has been declining in enrollment since the 2018-2019 school year. State funding is calculated on a per-student basis; funding does not increase to pay for higher operating costs or for wage increases when the district has fewer students year over year.
Ultimately, state funding (even with local tax dollars included on top of the base state aid per pupil) does not cover the cost of operating elementary schools with fewer than 400 students. With most of our elementary buildings enrolling only half as many students, the math is unsustainable. This is particularly true in light of the high priority the community and the board has placed on paying support staff a living wage and paying teachers salaries that are competitive with surrounding communities. Over the past two decades, the district has not invested enough funding in staff wages, instead using those funds to sustain an operational model that ultimately–because of the decades-long disinvestment by the state legislature in public education–the district could not afford. Closing two of our schools will, both in the short- and the long-term, free up resources to reinvest in wages, help reduce our largest class sizes, and sustain academic and extracurricular programs that are important to students and families.
Q. The district just spent a lot of money fixing up the Pinckney building. What is the district doing to protect the community’s financial investment in the buildings that were closed?
A. These investments are being protected. While Pinckney and Broken Arrow are no longer serving as elementary schools, the buildings are being used for student learning and support for USD 497 students.
In the case of Pinckney, it is now home to the district’s Community Connections programs. These are USD 497 educational services for 3 groups of students: students 18-21 years of age who have IEPs and who are still receiving educational services from the district or through the district’s partnership with Project Search; students who are in specialized middle school and high school classrooms to support their behavioral and emotional needs; and students who are attending the district’s Suspension Alternative Program. By using Pinckney for these important USD 497 programs, the district is protecting the community’s investment of bond dollars in the building while also providing high-quality learning spaces that better meet the needs of these students.
Similarly, the district is using the building at Broken Arrow to support USD 497 students and their families. The district has moved key district programs for Native students and families into Broken Arrow, protecting the community’s investment of bond dollars at that building and providing expanded spaces for Native American Student Services programs and staff.
Q. If the budget situation is so challenging, why did you support giving a tax break to the Borders bookstore redevelopment project?
A. I would not vote to support tax relief for redevelopment projects if that vote harmed the current or future finances of the district.
The good news about this project is that the school district will not lose a single penny of funding, nor will it ever. And, in fact, approving the request will increase the funding the district receives to make repairs to district facilities.
How can that be? It’s because of the way that a Neighborhood Revitalization Act tax abatement works in tandem with the way that schools are funded in Kansas.
The school district’s funding is determined by a formula in state statute. When the school board approves a Neighborhood Revitalization Act proposal, it costs the district zero dollars. It also does not cost local taxpayers any additional dollars. Homeowners do not pay any more taxes to the school district or to the state as a result of the tax abatement. Over time, the business receiving the abatement will pay more in local property taxes, which will help keep the school district mill levy from increasing over time.
Ultimately, the district benefits financially from approval of these projects; a successful redevelopment project done with this tool means a little extra money collected in the district's capital outlay fund over time.
Q. I have seen a lot of Facebook comments about charter schools. Should I be worried about a charter school opening in LPS?
The board has never been asked to approve a charter school. The board has no plans to create such a school. The Montessori program at New York Elementary is not a charter school.
What is a charter school? It is a school that receives public funding but operates independently of the established school system in which it is located. Typically, charter schools are created through a contract between the authorizing entity and the entity that operates the school.
To be clear, I will not support proposals that take dollars away from the operations of our school system. That is why I would oppose bringing a charter school to our community, and why for the past twelve years I have advocated against the many voucher proposals that have been proposed in the Kansas legislature.
Q. I have also seen social media posts claiming that the district is planning to privatize schools. Is that true?
Q. What did the board do with the money saved from reducing staff and closing buildings at the end of last year?
A. The board has directed that the savings be used on these 3 priorities:
Increasing teacher and support staff pay;
Paying for annual increases in fixed costs such as utilities and insurance (e.g., district liability insurance premiums have increased 333% in the past 5 years, a $1 million additional ongoing expense);
Building contingency reserve funds to strengthen the district.
Q. Why can’t the board just raise taxes to pay for these things? Or ask the City or the County for more money?
A. The board does not have any legal authority to impose additional taxes to pay for these priorities. District funding is determined by formulas in state statute and in federal law.
The district has several existing partnerships with the City of Lawrence and Douglas County, where these community partners are paying for programs benefiting our students and families. These include:
City of Lawrence - School resource officers (increased in 2022-2023 from 4 to 6, so that each secondary school has a full-time officer assigned to it); Safe Routes to Schools and crossing guards (continued working with the City to identify safe routes for students and to reevaluate the number and placement of crossing guards to increase safety for students who walk to school);
Bert Nash and Douglas County - Realigned and renewed the WRAP program so that the positions funded by Bert Nash and Douglas County could be sustained and continue to provide essential mental health supports to students within our schools.
Q. Why doesn’t the board sell the ESC and use the money to pay teachers and paraprofessionals?
A. Money the district receives from the sale of a building can only be spent on capital outlay projects (in other words, on facilities maintenance and repairs and other building-related expenses). It cannot be used on teacher or paraprofessional salaries.
Also, money from the sale of property is “one-time” money. It is not fiscally responsible to use one-time funding sources to pay the ongoing costs of employment contracts with teachers, e.g., because when the one-time money is spent, the ongoing expense has to be paid for by money from some other part of the budget.
Q. Class sizes are too large. What are you doing about it?
A. I share parents’ concerns about class size. For far too long, USD 497 has not had sufficient staff or funding to reduce the largest class sizes in schools all over Lawrence. The budget work completed in the past two years has created flexibility in the district’s budget to place additional staff in schools where class sizes are too large.
In my next term I will continue to focus on budget priorities that maintain these additional positions so that all students have the opportunity to learn and staff have the opportunity to work in fully resourced, reasonably-sized classrooms.
Q. Support staff should be paid a living wage. What are you doing about that?
A. I have been a steadfast supporter of improving the working conditions of USD 497 staff. I voted in favor of forming the staff union, PAL-CWA, for all district support (“classified”) staff. I have supported raises for teachers and support staff throughout my time on the board. This year, I led the board through budget work to increase teacher, paraprofessional, and support staff pay to historic levels. I have also advocated for and supported the district’s participation in independent surveys to gather feedback from teachers and support staff about their needs.
Moving forward, I will be focused on sustaining and increasing the district’s investment in teachers and support staff. These efforts will include compensation as well as responding to feedback from staff about the support they need from the district to be successful and feel valued for the important work they do for students and families each and every day.
Q. Why is the district losing students?
A. It is true that enrollment is down over the past 5 years; of note, the decline in enrollment began in 2018–before the COVID-19 pandemic. The reasons for the declining enrollment are complicated, and driven by factors such as a declining birthrate in our county since 2012, a lack of good quality affordable housing for families in Lawrence, and a severe shortage of childcare spots for families with children under the age of 5.
Because the growing affordable housing crisis in our community, as well as city and county land use and development policies, are impacting Lawrence Public Schools enrollment, the district is working with our local partners to help them understand that Lawrence needs to be a community that appeals to and is affordable for families with school-age children. Availability of affordable housing is an essential factor to the continued enrollment growth of the district and to the district’s ability to recruit and retain USD 497 teachers and staff.
Q. Why are you advocating for more special education funding? I thought schools were fully funded under Governor Kelly’s budgets and the Gannon Kansas Supreme Court decision?
Thanks to Governor Kelly’s leadership, the regular school funding formula has been funded according to the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision in Gannon for each of the past 5 years.
However, the last time the Kansas Legislature fully funded special education services under Kansas law was in 2010-2011. Since then, the legislature has failed to fully fund the special education funding statute. The level of funding in the 2023-2024 school year will be at the lowest percentage of any year since 2010.
In the 2023-2024 school year, the legislature only appropriated enough money to cover 69% of the costs that they are legally obligated to fund. In addition, the federal share of funding for these services has dropped to its lowest point in years, accounting for only 13% of the costs of districts to provide these services. The remainder of these services are paid for by the district using funds that are otherwise supposed to be spent on instruction and programming for all students.
During the 2023 legislative session, I partnered with a group of public education advocates to increase the visibility of this issue, leading two press conferences of district leaders, staff, and parents of special education students to highlight the severe and illegal underfunding of these services and the increasingly damaging impact the legislature’s inaction is having on our students in USD 497 and on all students across the state. I will continue to do this advocacy work during the 2024 legislative session. #fullyfundspecialed