Archive for Sunday, April 13, 2003

Vote to close schools nears

April 13, 2003

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A majority of Lawrence school board members is prepared to vote Monday to close East Heights and Centennial schools.

If at least four of the seven board members give preliminary approval for changes in elementary boundaries that drop both schools from the district's map, final action to close the two elementary buildings will likely occur in May.

"I'm pretty adamant to consolidate," board member Mary Loveland said. "The whole thing for me has been about how many kids in a class ... not keeping a certain number of schools open."

An overflow crowd is expected at the board's meeting 6:30 p.m. Monday in district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive. The board will take public comment on consolidation.

A "first reading" vote Monday in favor of consolidation would have to be affirmed by the board on final action May 12 before the schools are closed.

Six board members endorsed a $59 million bond proposal that included consolidation of East Heights and Centennial. While voters rejected that bond April 1, this boundary vote by the board could mirror that previous 6-1 margin.

In separate interviews, board members Linda Robinson, Austin Turney, Scott Morgan and Mary Loveland said they would vote for consolidation of East Heights and Centennial, effective at the end of this academic year.

Sue Morgan said she would reserve judgment until reviewing detailed plans for the transfer of students to other schools. She's opposed to realignments that put more students in portable classroom trailers.

"I need to see that before I say I'm for closing them before next year," Sue Morgan said.

Jack Davidson is against consolidation, having voted consistently against efforts to shut down elementary schools. Leni Salkind didn't return phone calls for comment.

Rich Minder and Leonard Ortiz, who won election to the board April 1 but don't take office until July, have urged the current board to put a moratorium on elementary school consolidations until they take office.

Turney, who is in line to become the next board president, said the board was unlikely to heed that request.

"I don't think the board is going to go that way," he said. "We must vote for the consolidation."

Against popular will?

The closure of East Heights and Centennial schools would require boundary changes that alter enrollment at five other schools.

Here's what the boundary committee recommends if the school board closes East Heights and Centennial in May:

¢ East Heights: Ninety East Heights students south of 15th Street and east of the railroad tracks go to Kennedy School. Sixty East Heights students north of 15th Street and west of the railroad tracks move to New York School.

¢ Centennial: One hundred and forty Centennial students would go to Cordley School. Thirty Centennial students in the Marvonne/Melholland areas would go to Schwegler School. It also requires 60 Cordley students in Gaslight Village to move to Broken Arrow School.

Minder said the board's apparent unwillingness to listen to the voters was disturbing. The bond was defeated in part because people oppose consolidation, he said.

"You would think the board had a responsibility to the electorate," Minder said. "Just because you have the votes doesn't mean that you can move forward in a way that is going to disenfranchise and alienate a significant population of people."

Loveland said the board attempted to make it clear to the public that rejection of the bond didn't mean consolidation would be taken off the table.

"Some people voted misguidedly," she said.

Advocates for consolidation on the board are relying on academic and financial justifications for reducing the number of elementary buildings to 15. The board already voted to close Riverside School in May.

Turney said his decision was based on the district's inability to properly staff existing elementary schools in a way that advanced the education of all children. New federal mandates for student achievement require the board to concentrate resources in fewer buildings, he said.

"I recognize the budget issue," he said. "My fundamental argument is academic."

The board has been struggling for months to develop a list of up to $4 million in cuts for the 2003-2004 budget.

Scott Morgan, the board's president, said that setting consolidation aside would force the board to go at least $1 million deeper into the list of budget cuts. That means fewer after-school programs and bigger class sizes, he said.

"We need these funds (from consolidation) for other programs. It serves the students better, even in the schools we're closing," he said.

Robinson said she rejected the idea that the board was undermining the education of children at East Heights, Centennial and Riverside schools through consolidation.

"If I thought this was going to harm kids in any way, we wouldn't do it," she said.




Shifting students

Under the board's boundary-change proposal, Supt. Randy Weseman said the district wouldn't need more portable classrooms to accommodate closures.

Students from East Heights and Centennial would be shifted to schools on the district's east side.

In addition, Weseman said some programs in schools that were consolidated -- a therapeutic classroom, for example -- would be moved elsewhere to make room for consolidated students.

He said students at Centennial or East Heights on a school transfer would have three options: Move to the new school based on the board's revised boundary map, return to the original home school, or request a transfer to a different school within 30 days of final action.

The East Heights building would likely become the site of a merged early-childhood education program in the district, Weseman said. Future use of Centennial is unclear.

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