Archive for Sunday, March 9, 2003

School issues put city at crossroads

April 1 vote to test board’s vision for district

March 9, 2003


The Lawrence public school district is between a rock and a hard place.

Shrinking state financing for public schools and increasing costs are the rock.

The hard place is shrinking enrollment in elementary schools, decades of residential growth, outdated schools in the city's core, escalating federal mandates, increasing operating costs, inequity among schools and a desire to save elementary buildings that anchor neighborhoods.

"The squeeze is on," said Scott Morgan, school board president. "It places us at a crossroad."

Voters go to the polls April 1 to decide whether the current school board's map for tunneling through the rocky terrain makes sense.

The board seeks a record-high $59 million bond issue for school construction and renovation. It would finance improvements at 15 of the district's 25 schools while closing the Centennial and East Heights elementary buildings.

It's a referendum on the vision of Lawrence public school facilities articulated by the school board and top district leaders. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, concerned taxpayers and neighborhood activists have been fighting for months about the bond plan.

It's been a divisive battle.

Criticism abounds

Pick any aspect of the bond question, and it's been attacked.

How does borrowing $59 million in a weak economy promote financial efficiency?

"We're going to spend money on bonds -- refurbish and consolidate. Supposedly that's going to be a savings?" said Ed Tato, president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Assn.

Doesn't the bond ignore the social costs of school closings?

"Many people in my neighborhood don't have cars," said Julie Mitchell, who lives near East Heights. "Kids in my neighborhood don't have coats."

Won't the bond promote residential sprawl and damage older neighborhoods?

"If we grow in a way that strengthens the outer edges of the city," said Arly Allen, a leading critic of the plan, "while leaving the center of the city in a deteriorating state, the city as a whole suffers. It can't live that way."

How can closing three schools save the district $1.4 million annually?

"I don't understand how we're going to do that," said Scott Fullerton, a Riverside parent.

Why do board members think shiny buildings guarantee quality education?

"I have yet to see a building educate a child in Lawrence. It's the teachers in that building," said Joe Patterson, a 1954 graduate of Lawrence High School.

Supporters' view

Those supporting the bond plan say it offers solutions. The biggest backers are the six of seven board members who voted to approve it.

The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce's board pledged its support.

All 18 elementary school principals in the district signed a letter endorsing facilities changes, including consolidation and boundary shifts.

"Change is inevitable, and I would prefer that it be planned change instead of forced change," said Sharen Steele, principal of New York School.

Karen Frick, who is on the site council at South Junior High School, said the bond wouldn't destroy Lawrence neighborhoods. After all, she said, the plan invests $43 million in schools east of Iowa Street.

"We will be revitalizing our east and central part of Lawrence," Frick said. "It will create great opportunities, not only for our children, but for our town."

And the school board again is searching for millions of dollars in budget cuts. If $1.4 million can be saved by shutting down three schools, board member Sue Morgan says that step must be taken.

The district can't afford the status quo, she said.

"If the building is that critical to you, what are you willing to give up in terms of programs and services?" she asked.

A facilities plan

The school board has devoted two years to its school facility initiative. The centerpiece is a comprehensive facility master plan for improving schools.

"There's been study after study for 35 years, but we didn't have a master plan," Supt. Randy Weseman said.

A consulting firm, DLR Group of Overland Park, started the process by assessing existing schools. Consultants crawled around ceilings, examined classroom lighting, looked for structural flaws, assessed security, measured disability access, checked out sports, lunch and library spaces, and much more.

DLR Group interviewed hundreds of people -- teachers, staff, parents, board members -- at dozens of meetings to find out what people wanted in schools. High priorities were placed on student achievement and safety. The quest for efficiency and concern for neighborhoods emerged as issues to be handled.

DLR Group used the information to create a blueprint of prototype schools. That baseline was compared to existing schools. Computers in DLR Group's offices generated a list of more than $100 million in facility improvement needs.

In the midst of the process, the board cut spending and raised fees by $3.1 million to balance a 2002-2003 budget that gave teachers a 5 percent raise. Cuts included closing Grant School, where enrollment had dwindled to about 30 students.

That was followed by the 6-1 board vote to seek the $59 million bond.

But that was just a starting point.

The debate reaches fever pitch on Election Day. Four pro-bond and four anti-bond candidates are going toe-to-toe. With four seats open, a majority on the board hangs in the balance.

So does the future of the district's facilities, some neighborhoods, and the quality of education in Lawrence.

"This is truly a critical moment for the city," said Allen, the bond critic.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.