Lawrence public school officials are studying a new, thought-provoking map. It shows that the youngest students live mostly where the schools are not.
The new map from the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Office illustrates in living color the concentration of school children on the city's perimeter, especially west of Iowa Street. The block-by-block map also shows the dwindling student population near downtown.
Supt. Randy Weseman said a dilemma for the school district emerged in clear focus when classroom buildings were plotted with the map.
"It is clear that many of our existing schools are not in optimum locations," Weseman said.
The map of Lawrence children zero to 19 years of age is based on 2000 U.S. Census data.
It's one piece of an information puzzle that will be the backbone of the district's upcoming facilities study. The discrepancy between elementary school locations and where elementary students live will be a central question of the project.
"These are the kinds of maps, along with other things, we'll need to do the facilities study in any kind of responsible fashion," said Scott Morgan, school board vice president.
He said there were two basic options for dealing with population trends and the district's 19 elementary schools.
Students could ride a bus from densely populated areas in the west to low-enrollment elementary schools in the east, Morgan said. If that's not acceptable, he said, the district could close under-enrolled elementary schools in the east and build new schools out west where most of the new students live.
Morgan said the situation for the board was complicated by the fact that busing and consolidation had not been warmly received by Lawrence voters in the past.
While these options have been generally set aside, the district has built new schools on the city's perimeter. Opening these buildings accelerated movement of families out of established schools in the city's center, he said.
That jeopardized older schools clustered near downtown and challenged the district's philosophy of neighborhood schools. Allowing children to attend a nearby school, generally within walking distance, has been a hallmark of previous school facility decisions.
The student population maps and growing budget problems suggest board members may be ready to examine alternatives that fly in the face of neighborhood schooling.
"We need not to be afraid to explore different options," said Sue Morgan, school board president. "Putting it on the table doesn't mean we'll do it."
Board member Jack Davidson said the cost of busing children across town to fill schools might work if it weren't too expensive and wasn't rejected by the public.
But, he said, residential growth on the city's west side has the potential to outpace bus schedule changes.
A housing bulge near Sunflower School is adding pressure in the southwest. The district's newest school, Langston Hughes, is filling fast.
The area between Peterson Road and the Kansas Turnpike is a pressing problem. The nearest elementary, Deerfield School, is already the district's largest.
"We have to do something," Davidson said.
Linda Robinson, the board's newest member, said gaining consensus on the best way to respond to the city's growth would challenge the board.
"Lawrence where nothing is a slam-dunk." she said. "It's going to take a whole lot of people deciding what does it take to have a quality education program."
Decisions sparked by a shifting student population could be answered by this time next year. Facilities consultants should have compiled their report, the school board is expected to have developed a plan for the 10,000-student district that includes a multimillion-dollar bond issue and voters will have voted to accept or reject it.
"I would hope that we would," Sue Morgan said. "What I hope to do, which the district hasn't done well in the past, is candidly discuss it all from a standpoint of how to structure this so it gets us better educational delivery."