The difficulty a local school task force is having in reaching a consensus on how to handle expansion of the city's secondary schools provides a microcosm of the concerns that are bound to be raised when any school recommendation goes to local voters.
It's easy to see why the community would find it difficult to give its whole-hearted support to a proposal that is likely to receive only a lukewarm recommendation from a task force that has studied the issue for more than a year. The issues being discussed by the task force emphasize the fact that there is no magic solution for overcrowding in Lawrence secondary schools. The best the school district can do is move forward on what it sees as the most promising plan and simply hope that time will prove it was a wise move.
The Commission on Mid-Level and High School Education now has narrowed its focus to two proposals. One would separate grades 9-12 into two schools, putting 11th- and 12th-graders into a renovated Lawrence High School building, and constructing a new "mid-high" at a different site to serve ninth- and 10th-graders. The plan would be to use the two schools until both reach an enrollment of 1,700 students. At that time, the district would seek a bond issue to build a third secondary school and divide the students into three four-year high schools.
The other major proposal calls for the expansion of facilities using three successive bond issues that would be placed before voters in 1992, 1993 and 1994. The bond issues would be used, respectively, to (1) build a fourth junior high school. (2) renovate and expand LHS and (3) build a second high school for grades 9-12.
Both plans have advantages and disadvantages. The grand three-high-school plan would avoid the city ever being divided into two high-school halves. But it also would create curriculum problems by making it difficult for ninth- and 10th-graders to take upper-level classes primarily offered for 11th- and 12th-graders.
Is there something magical about the 1,700-student benchmark? That's about the same number of students as now attend LHS, but there certainly are larger high schools operating successfully in other parts of the country.
The plan spreads the district's spending over a number of years, but since it involves the immediate construction of a major secondary school, the initial bond issue for the plan would be close to the amount voters rejected in November 1990. The commission estimates it would cost $28 million to renovate LHS and build the new mid-high. The 1990 bond issue sought $30 million to renovate LHS and build a second high school.
The three-bond-issue plan goes even further in spreading out the costs of expanded secondary schools, but does so in a way that puts the district at serious risk of never meeting its ultimate facility goals. If even one of the bond issues doesn't pass, the entire plan falls apart and the district would be forced into exactly the type of stopgap measures it has been trying to avoid. While voters might find it less painful to approve tax increases in three installments, it's also likely that the total pricetag for the end product would be greater if it is broken into three bond issues. Construction costs rise; items get added. A single, tightly budgeted bond issue probably would end up costing district taxpayers less.
There is no doubt that the Commission on Mid-Level and High School Education faces a difficult job, both in recommending a course of action and trying to find public support for the plan it chooses. As they make their final decisions, commission members should try their best to come up with a plan the group can support. It won't be the favorite plan of every individual commission member; it will undoubtedly meet with opposition from some in the community. But it's important that the commission be able to present a solid rationale for why its recommended plan is a realistic course of action that has a good chance to improve Lawrence's secondary school system.