Archive for Sunday, December 1, 2002

Bond foes put up fight

School closures, tax increase fuel opposition to plan

December 1, 2002


Arly Allen is mapping a strategy to defeat the Lawrence school district's proposed $59 million bond issue.

Like a runner in a high-stakes race, Allen intends to keep stride with the community's school facility debate and be in the thick of things when district voters decide April 1 whether to tax themselves for the next 20 years to improve school buildings.

"This issue is in many ways the most critical issue the city will face in the next 50 years," Allen said.

He said he would campaign against the bond issue because it would harm the city's residential and business core. Primarily, he objects to closing small, older elementary schools.

The school board, which has four seats up for re-election April 1, is bracing for an assault on its facilities blueprint. The board voted 6-1 on Nov. 18 to advance a bond issue that includes improvements to 14 of the district's 25 schools, and coincides with closure of Centennial, East Heights and Riverside elementary schools. Three bond supporters on the board and its lone opponent, Jack Davidson, face re-election.

Educating voters

"It will be a vibrant, vigorous discussion," said Scott Morgan, the board's president and one of the bond supporters facing re-election. "We need to get out there and say why this is the best for kids."

Indeed, Jim Stokes of Lawrence said the district better have a bond marketing campaign "second to none" or forget passing a $59 million tax increase for school construction and renovation.

"There are a lot of people out there that do not know what's going on," said Stokes, who has lived in Lawrence since 1965 and has no children in the schools.

The battle to create understanding ...quot; pro or con ...quot; about the bond issue will be fought in public forums and private conversations for the next four months.

DLR Group, a facility consulting firm in Overland Park, was hired by the board to help write a 20-year facility master plan and develop the bond issue. DLR Group also is responsible for advising the district on how to "educate," as DLR Group's John Fuller says, voters about planned change.

Fuller said the firm would help the school board coordinate activities of Lawrence community members willing to lobby on behalf of a bond issue. One-third of voters will never vote for a school bond, Fuller said. One-third support it. The battle will be over the undecided.

It will be people such as Scott Fullerton, who has spoken in opposition to closing Riverside but finds some merit in the bond issue, who could challenge advocates of the tax increase.

"I feel like at the junior high and high school levels, the bond issue has benefit," Fullerton said. "At the elementary level, I feel like it takes more than it gives."

While $30.2 million would be spent on the junior highs and $15.7 million on high schools, he said, the smallest share ...quot; $12.8 million ...quot; would be devoted to elementary school improvements. And while South Junior High School and the Lawrence Alternative High School will be new structures, three of the district's elementary schools would be lost.

"If the election were today, I would vote no. I don't have any evidence that the bond vote is going to help my family," said Fullerton, who has a son at Riverside.

Closure sticking point

Closure of Centennial and East Heights also will generate opposition for the bond issue.

Bob Lewis, who lives in the Centennial neighborhood, said he supported much of the bond issue. But shut down schools, and his attitude changes.

"If you knock these schools down, I'll go the other way," Lewis said.

East Heights paraprofessional Vicki Scott is proof opinions can swing from one side to the other. Scott initially spoke against closing East Heights, but now backs the bond issue.

The bond issue contains $9.3 million to improve New York and Cordley schools to accommodate students from East Heights and Centennial. Without money for those facility changes, East Heights students could end up scattered throughout Lawrence. They need to stay together, she said.

"It's crucial," Scott said, "and it will lend support to the bond issue."

Sue Morgan, another of the bond-supporting board members facing re-election, said the merger of schools was an opportunity for community members to come together rather than divide. She said Cordley and Centennial were a prime example.

"Because both communities care so much about these kids, they will find a way to make it the best possible situation," she said.

Allen said the debate about facilities may induce more people to run for school board.

He said the board needs strong-willed, independent thinkers who don't rely too much on district administrators for information and insight. The board also needs people brave enough to admit they're wrong every now and then, he said.

In this case, Allen said, the board needs to step back and admit this bond issue was an error.

"It's hard to say, 'I was wrong.'"

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