Board discusses budget shortfall due to enrollment decline

USD 497 faces $1M deficit after 647 students left the district this year

Isis Norris, Free Press Editor-in-Chief

More than $2.65 million has been spent by the district to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, according to a report given by Executive Director of Finance Kathy Johnson at the Lawrence Public Schools Board of Education meeting on Monday.

The board met to discuss the 2020-21 and 2021-22 district budgets and enrollment statistics — both of which have been affected by the pandemic.

The district received $2.93 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The remaining $288,000 from the grant must be used by September 2022. The act stipulates that the money must be put toward sanitization, staff and student support, technology upgrades or food services.

While the district saw an increase in CARES funding, Johnson reported that there was a decrease in state funding due to a reduced number of students enrolled.

“It’s going to be a challenge to get us back to current levels,” Johnson said.

It’s going to be a challenge to get us back to current levels.”

— Kathy Johnson, District Executive Director of Finance

Compared to last school year, enrollment declined in every grade. Total enrollment in the district dropped by 647 students, roughly 6% of last year’s number. Government funding is based off of a school’s attendance, so this difference will affect next year’s budget. The district is allowed to use the average attendance of the last three years to avoid a noticeable decline in the budget.

The current revenue shortfall is $1.87 million. Due to an increased enrollment at the Lawrence Virtual School, that deficit is estimated to shrink to $1 million. Johnson said that the district would have to make “permanent and ongoing” cuts to break even.

The Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Department reported an increase of coronavirus cases within the county on Monday, bringing the total number of active cases to 481. Board member Shannon Kimball mentioned this increase while underlining the importance of following health guidelines during in-person learning.

The county’s positivity rate grew to 11.4% on Monday, which placed Lawrence Public Schools in the orange zone on the model of recommendation provided by the health department. This zone advises that all in-person learning, extracurricular activities and athletics cease.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis said winter sports and activities will still take place. The district’s COVID-19 Advisory Committee recently discussed how to offer sports and activities despite not being in the county’s green phase of reopening.

Our coaches and our fine arts educators have developed a really robust list of mitigation strategies to keep our student athletes and student musicians safe.”

— District Superintendent Anthony Lewis

“Our coaches and our fine arts educators have developed a really robust list of mitigation strategies to keep our student athletes and student musicians safe,” Lewis said.

Despite this, several community members spoke to the board in support of in-person learning and expressed frustrations with the hybrid model.

“We are in an absolute crisis in our community,” said Ashley Freeman, the parent of a first grader within the district. “Yes, COVID is scary and I’m not here to downplay risks, but the crisis I’m referring to is prolonging our students’ return to the classroom.”

A staff member from Schwegler Elementary School and a student from the district, along with several parents, made public comments. Most advocated for the board to support an extended in-person learning model, citing anecdotal increases in students’ mental health after returning to the building.