Seeking community input on school facilities is a good move, but the Lawrence school district’s preliminary plans for a task force to provide that input raise some questions and concerns.
School board members made the right decision in delaying any elementary school closings until at least the fall of 2011. Finances will be no better next year, but decisions about elementary schools can be linked to the board’s consideration of moving Lawrence sixth-graders to the junior highs and ninth-graders into the district’s two high schools in fall 2011.
If the board goes ahead with that move, it will have a significant impact on facility use in the district. For that reason, it seems odd that the charge of the task force currently being formed is only to study the district’s elementary buildings, their condition and capacities.
School board members already had scheduled two public meetings — one at 7 p.m. Thursday at Free State High School and another at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Lawrence High School — to talk about a possible shift to four-year high schools. Will a separate community task force be formed to look at moving sixth- and ninth-graders, the impact on facilities and how students could be moved with a minimum of disruption?
It seems that without such a task force, board members could find themselves facing a community uprising not unlike this year’s Save Our Schools campaign when they decide to move forward on a reconfiguration plan. If it’s too much for one task force to consider all of the facilities implications of the reconfiguration, there should at least be some communication or crossover between the two task forces.
The composition of any task force often is the key to its success. Members need to come to the table with the community in mind and not as representatives of a certain school or viewpoint. For that reason, simply taking applications may not fill the bill. The district shouldn’t hesitate to do some active recruiting to get the kind of expertise and leadership that’s needed on the task force.
Superintendent Rick Doll said he envisions the task force including architectural or long-range planning consultants, but a strong task force should be able to move forward without paid consultants. Does the board want a community recommendation or a consultants’ recommendation? District officials and perhaps some Kansas University faculty members can provide the data and expertise the task force needs without the added expense of a consultant.
The size of the task force also is a valid concern. Twenty members may not be too many if the group splits into working subgroups to look into various issues, but Board President Scott Morgan is right that the number of members needs to be manageable.
As we’ve noted, seeking community input on major school district decisions is a positive move because it increases the chances of building community consensus on district actions. To increase the chances of building consensus, however, board members need to carefully consider how task forces are formed and how their task is defined.