The community drumbeat against making hasty decisions to close any local elementary schools next year apparently has been heard by Lawrence school board members.
The tentative plan unanimously approved by board members Tuesday night is a reasonable mix of cuts to administration and other district expenses. The cuts will have the greatest impact on elementary schools in east Lawrence, but they will be felt by every school in the district. It’s not a happy plan for Lawrence schools, but it’s probably the best school board members could do for this year.
Closing East Heights School and moving its early childhood programs, probably to Kennedy School, accounts for only $350,000 of the $5 million in cuts, but it might have the most noticeable impact on the district. Boundaries probably will have to be redrawn for Kennedy and New York schools to accommodate the shift, but that still is preferable to closing either school.
Maintaining the high quality of early childhood programs, which currently serve 130 students at East Heights, should be a top consideration. Every piece of recent research confirms that the preparation these students receive before entering kindergarten will make a critical difference throughout their school years.
The cuts aren’t pleasant. Raising the student-teacher ratio by one student and various other cuts to support staff will put more pressure on teachers. Some student activities will be eliminated, and the price of school lunches will go up.
One bright spot — also an indication that board members were listening to district patrons — was Tuesday’s reversal of Monday’s decision to eliminate sixth-grade band. The move would have affected many students and is a perfect example of a change that makes no sense in light of the district’s exploration of moving ninth-graders to the high schools and sixth-graders to the junior highs/middle schools in the fall of 2011. The district would be eliminating band for sixth-graders only to have the program restored a year later if those students are moved to middle schools.
The best part of the compromise plan approved Tuesday is that it gives the district a little more time to consider how to use its buildings and resources to best serve district students. The involvement of local groups and individuals in addressing the district’s current budget challenges is a strong indication of the community’s interest in our public schools. The school board already has indicated it will appoint a community task force to look at facilities. People appointed to the task force will have to go beyond advocating for their own children or school and look at the interests of the district as a whole.
It’s unlikely that the financial picture for local schools will improve next year. In fact, depending on the action of state legislators, it may be much worse. The major questions facing school board members in recent months — the big-dollar matters — are not going away. They will have to be dealt with, and it is hoped the school superintendent, teachers and principals will take an active role in discussing various alternatives to resolve those issues. The challenges aren’t over, but board members should be congratulated for wisely giving the community more time to consider the best way for the district to use its resources.