A majority of Lawrence school board members on Monday night said they were at least willing to consider school closures as the district tries to cut $5 million before next school year.
“I am not in a hurry to close any schools. It’s not something I want to do,” board member Bob Byers said. “However, there are also things in education that are just as important or more important than the buildings.”
Board members didn’t make any decisions at their Monday night meeting, but it was their first major discussion after hearings about their options for several weeks.
Members of Save Our Neighborhood Schools blasted the board’s discussion because they said the board appeared not to be considering a $5.5 million list of alternatives, including to stop using the general fund to buy student materials for now and instead tap into a materials fund saved up for future textbook purchases.
“This is an accounting change that does not impact the quality of education our children will receive,” Alee Phillips said.
At least one specific scenario for closing two elementary schools and the East Heights Early Childhood Center emerged Monday night, although several board members said they weren’t yet willing support a specific plan.
School board President Scott Morgan’s scenario includes closing Sunset Hill and Wakarusa Valley schools and moving the East Heights programs into New York School, which would become a building for pre-kindergarten to second- or third-grade classes.
The plan would keep Hillcrest and Cordley schools open because of their English as a second language programs.
Older New York students would move to other schools, and most Sunset Hill students would go to Hillcrest, although some students there would need to be moved out to keep the English as a second language program, Morgan said.
Also, Wakarusa Valley, southwest of Lawrence, would close temporarily until the district grows farther south in the future.
“It isn’t a permanent solution; if you don’t sell the building, you can reopen it,” Morgan said.
He said the scenario may not be what the board eventually decides to do, but he wanted get some plan out in public. Several other board members asked administrators to develop criteria for closing buildings.
Two board members voiced support for neighborhood elementary schools.
“This sense of community is crucial to the academic success that we enjoy as a district,” Vanessa Sanburn said.
Board member Rich Minder agreed.
“I’m pretty well comfortable with finding alternatives to closing neighborhood elementary schools,” he said.
The district is looking at trying to find $5 million in savings because of the state’s budget crisis.
Board member Mark Bradford said the next few days will help him decide whether the district should keep all of its buildings open and “very limited service for children” or reduce the use of facilities and overhead and “have the service that we need to get excellence in academics.”
“It’s one or the other. I don’t see it being both,” he said.
The district would save $573,662 in closing Sunset Hill, $474,967 for Wakarusa Valley and $250,000 for East Heights. Superintendent Rick Doll said the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence was interested in possibly leasing or buying a building the district is not using.
Other budget cut options on the table include a list of program and administrative cuts that total about $3 million, but several board members only supported about half of those choices.
Marlene Merrill talked about protecting guidance counselors and librarians.
“These are services that are essential to the well-being of our students,” she said.
The district has also looked at raising the student-teacher ratio, or cutting teaching positions to save money. Minder said he would be comfortable with increasing the ratio by two students, which would save about $2 million, but Morgan said it seemed a majority of board members would only consider an increase of one student.
About 30 people spoke at the meeting, and nearly all encouraged the district not to close schools, saying it would be rushed without thinking through the consequences.
Two Wakarusa Valley parents said the board should not close the school because it would be a hardship for younger students to have to ride the bus for an hour.
Jessica Beeson, of Save Our Neighborhood Schools, said the community group has gained momentum and would be able to rally support of volunteers to help with some services in schools.
“We need you to vote to keep the schools open so that we can actually get the people to do it,” she said.