Forum voices bond’s pros, cons

A former Lawrence school board president Wednesday said the district was blackmailing voters with an all-or-nothing $59 million school bond.

“That’s a big mistake,” James Hilliard said during a televised bond forum at Liberty Hall sponsored by The World Company.

Hilliard, who served on the board from 1997 to 2001, said voters should have been offered a bond referendum with several options.

By consensus at the ballot box, he said, the community could have decided what projects it was willing to finance with a property tax increase.

“We’re smart enough to figure out a check-off system,” said Hilliard, who runs an antibond group called COBRA, or Citizens Opposing Bond Re-evaluate Alternatives.

Voters go to the polls Tuesday to consider the $59 million bond and elect four school board members.

The bond would finance construction or renovation at 15 schools but also would close two elementary schools. East Heights School students would go to New York School and Centennial School students would be moved to Cordley School after bond-financed additions were finished at the merger sites.

About 40 people attended the 90-minute forum, which featured three people on each side of the bond debate.

Panelist Ed Tato, president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Assn., said the school board’s plan to eliminate schools with only one class at each grade level, such as East Heights, wasn’t backed up with convincing educational research.

School bond panelists, from top left, Supt. Randy Weseman, Laura Denneler, Caleb Powers, Ed Tato, Judy Wright and James Hilliard discuss issues dealing with the proposed bond issue during a meeting at Liberty Hall. The televised forum Wednesday night was sponsored by The World Company, which owns the Journal-World, Sunflower Broadband and World Online.

He also said damage to neighborhoods caused by loss of a school wasn’t worth the estimated $1.4 million in annual savings.

“Closing down schools to do that seems drastic,” Tato said.

However, panelist Judy Wright, co-chairwoman of the Vote Yes for Lawrence Kids Campaign, said the community had to examine the bond through a broad lens.

“Nobody wants to see their school close,” she said. “This is a complicated bond issue, but it’s a bond issue that serves the entire community. Overall, there is a sense of equity about it.”

Supt. Randy Weseman was on the panel and said the district could no longer afford to operate 18 elementary schools in Lawrence. The board wants to create operational savings by running only two- or three-section schools, he said. New York and Cordley would be two-section schools with about 250 students each.

“The district didn’t go with the most efficient model — all three-section schools,” he said.

Weseman said the mergers would be successful.

“We have the kind of parents and the kind of community that makes things work,” he said.

Panelist Laura Denneler, who has a child at Centennial, said she was opposed to the bond because the school board relied on flawed information when making the decision to close Centennial.

“The bond is so large there has not been enough attention to detail,” she said.

Panelist Caleb Powers, a junior at Free State High School, endorsed the bond. Students would prefer to attend a “nice, shiny” school rather than a run-down building, he said.

He said students should be more concerned with class size than school size.