Archive for Tuesday, December 10, 2002

School board election issues revived

Candidates will likely face same voter angst about closing district schools

December 10, 2002


Lawrence school board history may repeat itself April 1.

A flashback to 1997 would reveal a school-closing and school-election scenario in some ways identical to that created by the current board.

"It does kind of appear things are coming full circle," former board member James Hilliard said. "I was pretty much aware that things were going to be like they are now before I left the board."

In 1997, the board's plans to close two schools were reversed by voters who elected new board members opposed to the closings.

Now, the board is preparing to close two elementary schools: East Heights, again, and Centennial, as part of a $59 million bond issue and consolidation plan.

Another voter rebellion could undercut re-election bids by four board members and set the stage for reversal of the planned closings.

In 1997, a save-the-schools coalition elected Leni Salkind, Austin Turney and James Hilliard to the board. Salkind and Turney still serve on the board. Hilliard, who completed a four-year term on the board in 2001, recalls those painful days.

"There was a sense of tension in the community," he said. "The community had a strong position about the importance of neighborhood schools, but no one was listening to them."

That's when the newly elected members decided to take a stand. Immediately after being elected in April, they went to then-Supt. Al Azinger and demanded the process of closing schools be stopped.

The reason, Hilliard said: the fear of what closing schools would do to the community.

"Lawrence is unique because the neighborhoods support the school," he said. "If we were to close the schools then it would not only hurt the kids but also community."

In turn, East Heights and Grant were allowed to stay open although the board -including Salkind and Turney - voted in 2001 to close Grant.

"Back then we allowed Grant to stay open, but it continued to drop in population," Salkind said. "It is not good for the children to go to a school with such a small population."

Salkind said her vote to close Grant, and now two additional schools, does not mean she has different views than when she first campaigned.

"I haven't changed," she said. "I would have made the same decision back then if I had to do it all over again. But now I am addressing the issues we have today. I look at the finances, and this time I am making a different decision."

Hilliard said he was disappointed with Salkind and Turney's calls to back school closures.

"The three of us campaigned together," Hilliard said. "Our campaign was that we would not close schools."

Hilliard plans to campaign against the bond issue, which will go before voters in April.

"I don't think the bond is the best for the city," he said. "There has to be a better solution than just going in and closing schools."

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