Archive for Sunday, April 13, 2003

A tough call

April 13, 2003

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Local school board members face a difficult decision on Monday night.

Monday night's Lawrence school board meeting almost certainly will spur spirited, perhaps heated, debate.

On the agenda is the first reading of a boundary change that will set in motion the closure of East Heights and Centennial schools. Opposition to that action has been vocal. Although district officials told voters the schools probably would be closed whether or not the proposed $59 million bond issue passed on April 1, many voters apparently voted against the bond issue in hope it would prevent the closings.

People in favor of keeping the schools open contend that the bond issue's failure supports their cause, but school board members appear ready to move forward with plans to redraw districts and distribute Centennial and East Heights students to neighboring elementary schools.

The board's first choice was to move all of the Centennial and East Heights students to enlarged and remodeled Cordley and New York schools. One goal of the bond issue was to create new schools that would serve slightly larger neighborhoods, but work better for students because they would have better facilities and more flexibility in determining staffing and class sizes.

Without the bond issue, the board's choices are limited. Board members who favor proceeding with closings cite several reasons. Combining the schools will offer more flexibility to maintain small class size. It also will allow the district to cut its costs enough to avoid about $1 million in cuts in other areas. Opponents to the school closings voice doubt about these contentions, but the board members' long and detailed study of the issues would seem to give them a strong grasp of what's possible and what's in the best interests of the district as a whole.

Two new board members voiced opposition to the bond issue and school closings during their campaigns. They will take their seats on the board on July 1 and have urged the board to wait until then to make a decision. That probably would delay school closings for at least one year, because it would be too late to put the plan in action. However, unless some board members change their stand on school closings, the board will continue to have a majority of members in favor of the move even after the new board term begins on July 1.

It's a difficult situation. Board members obviously hoped that the promise of newly remodeled schools to anchor central-city neighborhoods would ease the decision to close the schools. They are painfully aware of the sentiment against closing East Heights and Centennial schools and the substantial margin by which Lawrence voters -- those who pay the district's bills -- defeated the bond issue. But because they also are painfully aware of the financial pressures facing the district, they may conclude that closing the two schools is the best course of action.

This is the job they were elected to do. It's not something they take lightly and there's every reason to believe that whatever conclusion they arrive at, their ultimate goal is to provide the best educational opportunity possible to all Lawrence students.

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