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Archive for Sunday, November 10, 2002

School uncertainties leave residents hanging

November 10, 2002

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Stephen Roberts makes use of every opportunity to quiz the Lawrence school board on its plans for upgrading school buildings and consolidating elementary schools.

As a Riverside School parent, his interest stems from deep opposition to possible closure of that elementary school.

But he also has expressed frustration at recent forums that questions about the districtâÂÂs facilities study had yet to be answered.

âÂÂI have nothing but questions,â Roberts said.

HeâÂÂs like many school district patrons who are looking for answers.

Their curiosity comes as the Lawrence school board nears conclusion of a process to determine how to reorganize its collection of schools.

In addition to floating a bond referendum in 2003 to finance building improvements, the board tentatively has decided to close not just Riverside, but East Heights and Centennial schools.

The study has been in progress for one year, but no formal votes have been taken. That is expected to change Nov. 18 when the school board meets to decide contents of the bond issue.

In the meantime, here are the answers to questions that surface most often when discussing the future of district buildings.

Q: What is the school boardâÂÂs facilities planning project all about?

A: The board began preparing for a facility study in early 2001. The reason was simple. The district has no comprehensive facilities plan, Supt. Randy Weseman said.

DLR Group, an engineering and architecture firm from Overland Park, was hired a year ago to help the board develop a 20-year master plan. The engineering and architecture firm also will assist the board in developing a bond issue to pay for construction and renovation projects.

They examined all district schools to identify the needs of each. Principals, teachers, parents and others were interviewed. A âÂÂbaselineâ template of the ideal elementary, junior high and high school building was prepared. Existing schools were measured against the baseline.

Based on that document, the board is working to select high-priority construction projects and determine whether elementary consolidation makes sense.

A bond-issue proposal to pay for the work also is being developed by the board.

Q: What facility changes are under consideration by the board?

A: The board is scheduled to decide Nov. 18 what to include in a bond issue.

So far, demolition and rebuilding of South Junior High School and expansion of Lawrence Alternative High School have received board support.

Closure of Centennial, East Heights and Riverside schools is likely.

There are plans for renovation of Lawrence High School. Cordley and New York schools would be expanded to accommodate students from Centennial and East Heights. Additions could be made to other schools in the district to reduce reliance on portable classrooms.

Q: How much would a bond issue cost me?

A: The dollar amount hasnâÂÂt been set, said Scott Morgan, board president. However, board members have talked of needing at least $50 million in the first phase of their school-improvement effort.

Assuming the debt was repaid over 20 years and interest rates were still low when bonds were sold, a $50 million bond issue would cost the owner of a home in the district with an appraised value of $100,000 about $4.92 a month in higher property taxes.

Board members have talked of going as high as $63.3 million with a bond issue. Expansion of a bond issue to $60 million would require the owner of that same $100,000 home to pay $5.91 more in property taxes each month.

That would be added to payments on $69 million in Lawrence school bond debt.

Q: Is DLR Group pushing to close schools and pass a big bond issue just so it can make more money?

A: The district and DLR Group signed a âÂÂcontingencyâ contract in November 2001. In addition to the master plan and bond issue planning, DLR Group will be guaranteed millions of dollars in fees for construction management services at district building sites Ãi¿½" if the firm can help usher through a bond issue.

The bigger the bond issue, the more DLR Group could make.

âÂÂWe know we have to build that consensus or we wonâÂÂt have a successful project here,â said John Fuller of the DLR Group.

DLR Group has gained approval of 86 percent of its school bond issues on the first try.

Brad Kiehl, project manager with DLR Group, said the companyâÂÂs goal was to bring Lawrence schools up to the educational baseline approved by the board.

He said the firm could make more money if all schools were kept open and renovated. The three elementary schools earmarked for closure are in need of $14 million in upgrades to get each to the baseline.

âÂÂIt doesnâÂÂt do us any good to push a $100 million bond issue and the community not get behind it,â Kiehl said.

Q: What are the âÂÂbaselineâ assumptions when considering facility changes?

A: The boardâÂÂs goal is equitable educational opportunity for all Lawrence school children regardless of where students live.

âÂÂIt is a goal,â said Scott Morgan, board president. âÂÂIt represents a significant improvement for most facilities.âÂÂ

The baseline includes a student-to-teacher ratio of 17:1 in kindergarten through third grade and 24:1 in grades four through six.

It stipulates elementary schools have a minimum of two classes at each grade level. All schools would have a full-time principal, nurse, counselor, psychologist, librarian and social worker.

Other goals: elimination of multi-age classes, reduction of portable classrooms and return of all-day kindergarten.

Passage of a bond issue doesnâÂÂt guarantee baseline goals will be achieved.

Q: If the bond issue fails, will East Heights, Riverside and Centennial be closed anyway?

A: That decision hasnâÂÂt been made, but itâÂÂs possible given the districtâÂÂs budget situation and enrollment trends. The state may hit the district with a second round of cuts this fiscal year. Lawrence elementary enrollment has fallen three consecutive years.

The board asked Supt. Randy Weseman to search for ways to reduce expenditures. That could include closing Riverside Ãi¿½" the districtâÂÂs smallest school Ãi¿½" in May. ItâÂÂs unlikely East Heights or Centennial would close that soon.

DLR Group says shutting down the three schools would save $1.3 million annually.

Clouding the picture of school closures is the April school board election. Four members are up for re-election, and a new majority could be elected to reverse decisions made by the current board.

Q: DidnâÂÂt district voters already make opposition to school consolidation known?

A: During the past decade, several attempts to close groups of elementary schools failed. Some closures did occur. Kaw Valley School was replaced by Prairie Park School in 1994. Grant School was closed in May when enrollment fell to 39 students.

Large-scale attempts to close schools were met by aggressive opposition.

In 1997, angry voters elected a new majority to the school board to force reversal of a decision to close East Heights and Grant. Incumbent George Crawford was ousted.

Leni Salkind and Austin Turney were elected with the backing of those who opposed closing schools. Both now support consolidation. Ron Schneider, a Lawrence attorney, said the boardâÂÂs current attempt at consolidation amounted to a betrayal of voter intent.

âÂÂIt seems like deja vu all over again,â Schneider said.

Board President Scott Morgan said the public would have the final say.

âÂÂRemember, the bond must go to a vote.âÂÂ

Q: Are there people other than board members and administrators who favor school closures?

A: District administrators and board members say theyâÂÂve heard from a âÂÂsilent majorityâ who support closing elementary schools and investing operational savings in educational programs of remaining schools.

Dozens of speakers at facility forums and school board meetings have spoken in opposition to consolidation. Only two people have gone public with their endorsement of closures.

Deerfield School parent Noelle Fox says âÂÂmany parents and familiesâ would vote to close some of the districtâÂÂs 18 elementary schools. John Mitchell, a Quail Run School parent, says bigger schools offer students more educational opportunities.

Q: If elementary schools are closed, will attendance boundaries be redrawn?

A: Scott Morgan, board president, said no domino-effect of school boundary changes was mandated. However, board member Mary Loveland has urged a top-to-bottom review of boundaries. That wouldnâÂÂt occur prior to a bond vote, however.

Q: How can I express my opinion about school facilities issues?

A: The district has two more special meetings to gather public comment on the study. They are: 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Southwest Junior High School, 2511 Inverness Drive, and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at West Junior High School, 2700 Harvard Road.

People can speak at regular board meetings on Monday nights.

Assuming the board goes for a bond issue for school construction, it will likely be placed on a ballot in 2003. Simply register and vote.

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