Archive for Monday, October 7, 2002

School consolidation, bond issue likely

October 7, 2002


The Lawrence public school district's facilities planning study is like a firecracker with a long fuse waiting for the flame.

Some people are eager for an explosive, high-impact report that marks the moment of big change in the district.

Others are praying for a dud.

While no final votes have been taken on the study prepared by an Overland Park consultant, recent comments by school board members indicate a majority are close to putting match to fuse. That means elementary school consolidation and a bond issue to pay for school construction or renovation is probable.

"The fact of the matter is that we can't just leave it the way it is," said board member Sue Morgan. "We don't have the money to do all the things we're doing in all the places we're doing them."

Morgan has a question for people who want the facilities study to fizzle, preserving the status quo in the district's 25 school buildings.

"If the building is that critical to you, what are you willing to give up in terms of programs and services?" she said. "I'm not posing that as a hypothetical or rhetorical question. I'm serious."

Elementary consolidation

Morgan and her six colleagues on the board will convene 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday for a public meeting that will further lift the veil on their outline of the 20-year facilities master plan. They'll meet with consultants at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive, to narrow the scope of options for realigning district facilities.

The most controversial issue from the facilities study is possible consolidation of elementary schools. There are 18 in the district, and four have been offered as candidates for closure. Centennial and Riverside are on the chopping block, with an option of closing either New York or East Heights.

Among other objectives, the board is focusing on significant upgrades to Lawrence High School, constructing a new South Junior High School and Lawrence Alternative High School, and doing renovation work in all remaining schools.

It's clear Morgan won't be the only board member bringing strong views to the meeting.

Board member Jack Davidson said his top priority for the bond issue would be funding for construction of a new alternative high school. It now operates from a building in Holcom Park, 2600 W. 25th Street. The school enrolls about 100 students who have difficulty fitting in at Free State High School or LHS.

"If it's not in there, I won't support it," he said of a bond issue likely to go before voters in 2003.

Busing an option?

Davidson, who appears to be in a minority on the board in opposing consolidation of schools, said he would support demolition of Riverside School and South Junior High. But that support comes only if both are replaced with new buildings carrying the same name.

He also said the simple solution to the cluster of "neighborhood" elementary schools with low enrollments on the east side of Lawrence was to bus children from more populated areas in the west.

"If we need to fill schools on the east side, just change the boundaries," he said.

Board member Mary Loveland said she had listened for many years to arguments about preservation of neighborhood schools. Busing children from west to east flies in the face of the neighborhood concept, she said.

"So the people, I guess, on the west side don't have any neighborhood?" she said. "People have to listen to themselves."

Board member Austin Turney said he wouldn't rush to shut down any schools. It will take a couple years to remodel existing schools to accommodate students removed from closed schools.

"We're not about to close schools next year and cram kids into existing schools as they are," he said.

Silent support

Board member Leni Salkind said there was more support in the community for moving ahead with school consolidation than some people realize. Generally, she said, people making their voices heard at public forums so far oppose closures and feel their families would be damaged by consolidation.

"There is fear and discomfort," she said. "I understand that. I think there is a lot more support in the community (for change) because of an understanding about the budget. We can't let things languish as we have in the past."

However, she said public comment about closing Central Junior High School had convinced her it would not be a good idea.

"I'm much less anxious to make changes there," said Salkind, who had children attend Central. "We can't really take that whole thing away as a school."

Scott Morgan, board president, said the historic building no longer fulfilled its function as a junior high. Someday a new junior high will be built to replace Central, he said, but agreed the community wasn't ready to deal with that right now.

"I envision it will again change its function," he said, referring to the building's original use as Liberty Memorial High School. "To be wedded to its current use for ever and ever is nonsensical."

District 'baseline'

Morgan said he took exception to arguments by school preservationists that buildings with only one class at each grade level, including schools targeted for closure, were best for children.

"I'm convinced good things happen at one-section schools. Better things happen at two- or three-section schools," he said.

Board member Linda Robinson said she didn't think people realized the decisions about school construction or consolidation were based on the district's "baseline." That's a blueprint prepared by the board and consultants from DLR Group that shows what spaces should be in each school. It's a tool to help bring equity of educational opportunity to all children in the district, she said.

Elements of that baseline include elimination of portable classrooms throughout the district, maintaining small student enrollments in elementary classes and making certain schools don't have to use gymnasiums as cafeterias.

"I think it would be helpful if we could keep that baseline  the educational component that's driving the whole facilities study  up for people to see," Robinson said. "This is what parents are interested in terms of their children."

DLR is being paid $85,000 by the school board to prepare a facilities master plan to guide school renovation and construction.

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