Group: More than education, schools offer community

Cari Davis and her son Andre, 3, clean a classroom table Monday at New York School on a parent/student work day to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Davis is a fourth-grade teacher at Pinckney School but lives in the New York School neighborhood. “I hope Andre will be able to go to school here,” she said Monday.

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Centennial neighborhood resident Tom Harper is familiar with this feeling.

He and many of his neighbors endured the closing of Centennial School several years ago. And he doesn’t want it to happen again.

“We rallied like many people are rallying today,” Harper recalled. “And we lost. Just talking about it upsets me.”

Three schools — Centennial, East Heights and Riverside — stopped operating as elementary schools in spring 2003. The Lawrence school board is facing a $4 million deficit for next year’s general fund budget, and closing schools is among proposals the board is considering as it attempts to narrow that gap.

But Save Our Neighborhood Schools, a group formed in December, wants to keep classes going in all 15 elementary schools in the district. And members of the group say their efforts aren’t designed only to prevent their children from going to a different school next fall. Their actions also are about keeping neighborhoods in the city thriving.

“There’s no bad school in our district,” said Cari Davis, a New York School parent who teaches at Pinckney. “However, my neighborhood and the neighborhoods around us are going to see a property value drop. That’s not just bad for homeowners. That’s bad for the whole community.”

The group isn’t drawing lines down Iowa Street, either.

“The schools we think are the most threatened are on the east side,” Cordley parent Chuck Epp said. “But closing schools on the east side would have ripple effects across the community. It could have all kinds of devastating consequences for Lawrence.”

While the school board hasn’t centered its discussion of school closings on any specific schools, parents are concerned that the focus will be on smaller schools on the city’s east side.

Gwen Klingenberg, president of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods, wants to ensure each neighborhood in Lawrence is protected and retains its own identity.

“We are an eclectic group, an eclectic community. We would lose a lot of that,” Klingenberg said. “Neighborhoods are still affected by those (earlier) closings.”

The group knows the board would prefer not to close any schools as a cost-saving measure. So Save Our Neighborhood Schools hopes to identify other such measures.

“They (the board) are willing to work with anyone that values education in this town and come up with a better solution,” Davis said. “Losing square footage isn’t the solution.”

The neighborhood around New York School has become revitalized with young families, said Nancy Cayton Myers, a New York parent and former site council president.

“If those folks were to leave or not be attracted to these neighborhoods, it becomes a public safety issue that affects everyone,” said Cayton Myers, who’s lived in the area for nearly two decades. “Not to mention the tax ramifications. If the property values decline, that’s fewer dollars for the entire district.”

Save Our Neighborhood Schools is planning to attend elementary school site council meetings and upcoming board meetings. They want as many people to join their cause so they can formulate creative solutions for the budgetary problems.

“This $4 million crisis is not just one side of town’s problem,” Davis said. “I would like everybody in this community to realize that we can all work together.”