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Archive for Wednesday, October 30, 2002

October 30, 2002

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A former Lawrence school board president said the district's process of planning school closures and a bond issue for school construction was flawed.

"Now we're chasing our tails," said James Hilliard, among two dozen people who spoke Tuesday at a public forum on school facilities issues at Central Junior High School, 1400 Mass.

Hilliard, whose four-year term on the board expired last year, said the district's facilities consultant, DLR Group of Overland Park, should have solicited serious public input before laying out options for improving schools.

Instead, he said, DLR Group selectively gathered opinions before presenting options for more than $50 million in school construction and the closure of East Heights, Centennial and Riverside schools.

"Don't throw the plan out there and then say, 'What do you think?' The data was flawed at the beginning," Hilliard said.

Brad Kiehl, an architect with DLR Group, defended the company's work. The firm, he said, wasn't attempting to railroad the facility study through the community. Since January, he said, the firm inspected all Lawrence schools, surveyed hundreds of teachers and met dozens of times with community members to find out what they wanted in a school building.

Supt. Randy Weseman said DLR Group served at the will of the school board. Facilities planning is in the hands of the seven elected board members.

"This thing goes where the board wants it to go," he said.

Weseman said folks in Lawrence agree with the district's basic goal of placing students in classrooms where they can obtain a quality education. Finding consensus on how best to accomplish that objective is extremely difficult, he said.

"It's a very volatile discussion," he said. "You have to talk to everybody in town to bring everybody together."

He said declining elementary enrollment and shrinking state funding for public education would force change upon the Lawrence district.

"There are going to be compromises made," he said.

The school board is scheduled to vote Nov. 18 on contents of a school-construction bond issue. That plan could go to a public vote in early 2003.

DLR Group was hired by the district in November to prepare a 20-year facility master plan for the district. The firm agreed to a contingency contract, meaning that it stands to make millions of dollars by providing construction management services if a bond issue for school buildings passes.

Lawrence attorney Ron Schneider said the school board's apparent willingness to shut down elementary schools felt like a betrayal. He said he helped elect current board members on a save-our-schools platform who now back consolidation.

"It seems like deja vu all over again," Schneider said.

He said the board won't win approval of any bond issue based on DLR Group's conclusions.

"This bond issue ain't going to pass the way it's been discussed," he said.

Numerous speakers at the forum in Central's second-floor library spoke in favor of maintaining diversity of school size in Lawrence elementary buildings. Specifically, they advocated for retention of schools with less than 200 students. All three on the chopping block are under that threshold, and those students, if consolidation happened, would be moved to bigger schools.

Burdett Loomis, a Kansas University faculty member, said the board's focus on equity of educational opportunity was mistakenly tied to creating bigger libraries, setting a minimum of two classes at each grade level in schools and adding more counselors and nurses to the staff.

"In truth, real equity will occur only when students from all elementary schools emerge with at least basic levels of skills and proficiencies, especially in reading," he said.

Loomis said it made sense to keep East Heights open because research indicates small schools are more effective in serving an at-risk clientele than more populous schools which can't provide as much individual attention to students.

The third of six public forums on school facilities planning is 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Nov. 5 at South Junior High School, 2734 La.

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