There's no place for candidates in the race for Lawrence school board to hide on the issue of elementary consolidation.
Like a heat-seeking missile, voters are honing in on the 13 contenders' positions on the plan to close East Heights, Centennial and Riverside schools. This Mason-Dixon line of school politics will drive many voters' decisions in Tuesday's primary election.
"It is a major issue," said incumbent Scott Morgan, the board's president. "I'm looking forward to this primary because it's some indication of where we're headed."
Candidates have been boxed into "yes" or "no" positions on elementary consolidation plans tied to a proposed $59 million bond for school construction.
At one campaign forum, they literally were asked to stand if they were opposed to the bond and consolidation. Eight did. The five other candidates in the race, including Morgan, stood to express support for the bond and consolidation.
Candidate Cille King said her distaste for the board's strategy for closing three of the district's four smallest elementary schools inspired her to seek a seat on the board. Abandoning these viable neighborhood schools, allegedly to save $1.4 million annually, and spending $13.8 million in bond money to expand nine other elementary buildings doesn't make sense, she said.
"Large schools outside town alienates students, encourages sprawl and impairs our sense of community," she said.
Pattern of change
Consolidation has emerged from recent financial and long-term demographic changes in Lawrence. The district's budget has deteriorated the past couple of years as state funding of public education dwindled. Last year, the board adopted $3.1 million in budget cuts and fee increases. The spending rollback this year could be larger.
As new housing has been built on the city's perimeter, movement of families from neighborhoods and schools in the city's center accelerated. For example, New York School's enrollment has fallen from 175 to 118 over the past 14 years. During that time, on the edge of the city, Sunflower, Prairie Park and Langston Hughes schools have opened. Collectively, they enroll more than 1,000 students.
The overall enrollment trend in Lawrence elementary schools hasn't helped. In the past three years, enrollment has fallen more than 300 students. The loss of students to private schools, home schools and other communities costs the district about $800,000 a year in state aid.
Sizing up options
Meanwhile, the district's facilities consultant, DLR Group of Overland Park, completed a facility study that indicated existing Lawrence schools need about $100 million in improvements.
Incumbent Sue Morgan, who is championing the bond and consolidation, said she didn't buy the argument that closing the small elementary schools undermines any students' education.
"In fact," she said, "I believe status quo of retaining all our buildings will harm these students, particularly in light of the fiscal crisis. We simply will not be able to provide the staffing and resources that these kids need with building and boundary configurations that defy efficient staffing models."
Scott Morgan added: "In an ideal world, we would maintain all of our buildings. However, the real world we operate in is much less forgiving. We need to take the money we have tied up in square footage and put it back into the classroom."
Candidate Leonard Ortiz said none of the district's 18 elementary schools should close unless research conclusively shows large, merged schools were better than small, neighborhood schools, especially for at-risk students.
He said one recent study showed benefits of small schools included higher academic achievement, lower dropout rates, less violence and vandalism, greater teacher satisfaction and more community involvement.
"Such studies raise reasonable doubts regarding the closure of our neighborhood schools," Ortiz said.
Candidate Michael Pomes goes one step further. He simply doesn't believe the district should reduce elementary school numbers. It's fine to maintain the wide variety of school sizes the district has now, he said.
Enrollments range from 110 at Riverside School to 500 at Deerfield School. Eleven of 18 schools have fewer than 300 students.
"If the numbers of students in a neighborhood can only support a single-section school (one class at each grade), then the single-section schools is right for that neighborhood," he said.
Other candidates opposed to consolidation are Brent Garner, Samuel Gould, Eddie Lehman, Rich Minder and Ron Powell. Additional candidates backing closures are Gordon Longabach, Mary Loveland and Cindy Yulich.
The April 1 general election will settle the bond question and determine which four candidates earn four-year terms on the board.