Archive for Monday, December 26, 2011

Elementary efficiencies

Simply spending more money on local elementary schools doesn’t address the district’s — and the taxpayers’ — goal.

December 26, 2011


In a scientific poll conducted across Kansas last week, 55 percent of the respondents indicated they would be unwilling to pay higher property taxes even if the additional tax revenue went directly to local schools.

The question in the SurveyUSA poll, which was sponsored by the KWCH television station in Wichita, was posed in connection with Gov. Sam Brownback’s new school finance plan, but it may have some relevance for the Lawrence school district and its working group that is considering the consolidation of local elementary schools.

Following several months of meetings and nearing a deadline at the end of January to present a plan, the members of the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group have yet to reach consensus on any plan that would reduce the number of elementary schools in the district. After their most recent meeting Monday night, the one thing they were able to agree on was that the district must pursue a bond issue for elementary schools. Even if no funds are needed to build a new school, or schools, to facilitate consolidation, they concluded, a bond issue is needed to upgrade existing buildings.

It seems that, somewhere, this working group has gotten off the track. The charge of this group was to come up with a plan to consolidate elementary schools, period. The possibility of a bond issue to fund construction of a new school or two was dangled as a carrot to help their deliberations, but the odds of such a bond issue receiving a positive vote from taxpayers has always been in doubt.

Providing an excellent education for elementary school students in the district always is the top priority, but a primary goal of looking at consolidation was to bring about efficiencies that would save the district money in the long run. That goal was driven by declining state funding in the last several years, but it will be no less important to local taxpayers if the governor gains approval for a plan that will shift more responsibility for funding local schools onto local property tax levies.

The plan now being floated at the state level would eliminate all limits on local property tax levies to support local schools, but that doesn’t mean taxpayers in Lawrence or anywhere else should be expected to support — or will approve — large local school tax increases on top of the continuing state property taxes levied for schools.

If the Lawrence district is going to float a bond issue for elementary schools, it should be for the purpose of creating efficiencies that will produce long-term savings for the district.

Members of the elementary working group, as well as the school board, need to refocus their efforts on that goal.


cato_the_elder 6 years, 6 months ago

In 1985, USD 497 school board members appointed a "task force" to study elementary school overcrowding and underpopulation. The most significant problems were overcrowding at Hillcrest and underpopulation at Broken Arrow.

After a few meetings it was revealed that a significant number of ESL students from Stouffer Place were bused every day to Hillcrest. If those students were simply transferred to Broken Arrow, the bus trip would be virtually equidistant, the busing costs would be the same, and the population problems at both schools would be completely solved at zero cost to the taxpayers. The Hillcrest teachers and parents on the "task force" immediately went ballistic and were allowed to bring more of their number to the next meeting to object, the underlying but carefully unexpressed reason being that Hillcrest would lose an allocation of money that it had long received for teaching ESL students. Broken Arrow representatives made an effort to push the zero-cost solution that had been discussed, but didn't get to first base.

The "task force" ultimately recommended, of course, that a $200,000 (in 1985 dollars) addition be built on to Hillcrest School to accommodate its overpopulation, and nothing be done about the significant underpopulation problem at Broken Arrow. The school board members enthusiastically accepted it, the addition was built, the board members got their names on a new plaque and USD 497 business proceeded as usual.

In other words, there's nothing new under the sun.

aryastark1984 6 years, 5 months ago

OK. Let's put a few facts on the table. First, there is no room for the Stouffer place children at Broken Arrow. Current data show that Broken Arrow is at capacity and in 5 years will exceed capacity. Similar scenario for Schwegler. Second, the Stouffer place kids are not the only ESL kids in the city and not the only ESL kids at Hillcrest. Hillcrest and Cordley were chosen as cluster sites for ESL education because of their central location. As the district has REPEATEDLY told the working group, it is cheaper to concentrate ESL services in cluster sites and moving a cluster site is costly in time, money, and would greatly disrupt education in the new ESL cluster site. For instance, ESL funding is predicated on the child being taught by ESL certified teachers. Thus, in order NOT to lose funding for the ESL students, all teachers at the new cluster site would either need to get ESL certification (costing time and money) OR all of the teachers at the new ESL site would need to be REPLACED by ESL certified teachers. Does this sound cost efficient to you?

Now, let's talk about who the Stouffer place parents and kids are. The parents are international students who come to KU and pay approximately 30k per year for the privilege of attending KU. Why do you think they come to KU? Well, if you ask them, many will say that word of mouth in the international student community is that their children will be able to attend a school (Hillcrest) where they feel valued and welcomed, where they get excellent ESL education, and do not feel like a minority. Why should YOU care. Well, if you have a child who is or will attend KU, these are the people who are subsidizing your child's education. Their 30k per year, keeps KS resident tuition lower.

By the way, one thing you left out of your story is that the district tried to strong arm the Stouffer Place families in an effort to get them to move to Schwegler. These families were told that the district would bus their kids to Stouffer place, but not Hillcrest. All but one family told the district, thanks but no thanks. We would rather get our own kids to Hillcrest than have free busing to Schwegler.

Superficially, consolidation seems like a great idea. When you start to really look at the numbers, you realize that this is a hair-brained scheme that will ultimately cost the district MORE money than they will save.

cato_the_elder 6 years, 5 months ago

It's hard to tell, but you seem to be talking about our present-day consolidation controversy involving many schools, while I was discussing an incident involving only two schools that occurred in 1985. The point was, of course, that instead of adopting the one very simple, cost-effective solution available, USD 497 chose to spend taxpayers' money on an expensive new addition at Hillcrest - a harebrained scheme indeed.

aryastark1984 6 years, 5 months ago

Not sure that you will see this. But, to clarify- some of my comments are regarding the current situation (the current capacity figures). But, some issues are the same across both time periods: 1) The Stouffer Place residents have repeatedly expressed their preference for Hillcrest. This school has a current and past history of being very welcoming to kids from other cultures. 2) Moving an ESL cluster site is tricky. Saving a few dollars in capital outlay is likely to have been negated by the expense and trouble of moving the cluster site. A lot of people don't understand that in order to get those "extra dollars" the classroom teachers must be "ESL qualified." So, what that means is that at a cluster site school, every teacher in every classroom must be ESL qualified. To do ESL WELL, you need teachers who are experienced with ESL education. And keep in mind that ESL with the Stouffer place families is a very different beast than ESL in most schools. ESL in most schools means providing ESL education in one or two languages. ESL to Stouffer place families means that you need to figure out how to teach a class to students whose first languages include Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Farsi, Arabic, and Russian (and that is a shortened list).

So, maybe just maybe the decision to keep the Stouffer Place kids at Hillcrest was made in the best interest of the kids AND because the administration at the time was smart enough to know that saving a few dollars on the front end might result in greater costs down the line.

cato_the_elder 6 years, 5 months ago

Trust me. What I reported is exactly what happened, and it happened for the reasons I stated, not what you are speculating might have happened. Common sense was simply thrown out the window.

If the current "task force" that has been charged with making recommendations on closing one or more neighborhood schools simply punts and winds up asking for a brand new school, then it will prove once more that there is nothing new under the sun in Lawrence. Since the "troubled times" of 1969-73, Lawrence has changed from a moderately conservative community to a liberal haven for profligate spenders who have little or no regard for those who are paying the lion's share of the taxes.

ashmole 6 years, 6 months ago

The conclusion here is clear: it would be cheaper not to close any schools, because then a bond issue would not be needed. People in the inner city of Lawrence just want neighborhood schools and decent facilities, they don't demand the gleaming palaces of educational excess that the folks of West Lawrence do. The problem is that decades of school boards want to keep squeezing resources out of the older core in order to give ever more bling to the suburbanites of the West. Occupy Wall Street should take aim at USD 497: I don't advocate a Robin Hood solution, but a small minority of the privileged in the West should stop trying to suck the lifeblood from Central and East Lawrence.

JayhawkFan1985 6 years, 6 months ago

What really needs to happen is better coordination between the city's land use planning, the city's bus transit planning, and the school district's school facility planning. Historically,, there have been discussions between the city commission, the county commission and the school district board, but these discussions haven't resulted in an integrated planning process for the Lawrence community. There is a limited amount of developable land due to the floodplains from the Kansas and Wakarusa Rivers, Clinton Lake, and the various state highways all of which pose barriers to the continuing outward expansion of the city. With some of our developers starting to look at building owner occupied housing units that are not single family detached units on 1/3 of an acre, now is the time to scrap Horizon 2020 and develop a new comprehensive plan that will guide the future of the city, county AND school district. If this were done, we would have more people riding city buses, we wouldn't be building and expanding schools on the west side of town while closing schools on the east side.

dinglesmith 6 years, 6 months ago

People who know nothing about statistics should not be allowed to refer to them in their writing. The fact that 55% of Kansans do not support property taxes for local schools says nothing about any particular locality - Lawrence in particular - in the state. It only says something about the entire state. Yet, you open your piece on not using local property taxes to support local schools specific to Lawrence with a reference to this poll. I'm not real fond of increased taxes, but to use this poll to falsely support your position really irks me. Shame on you.

Richard Heckler 6 years, 6 months ago

Much of our districts school building problems have been the result of a demolition by neglect attitude of previous administrations and BOE members. An attitude USD 497 taxpayers can never afford.

The following example represents the magnitude by which a demolition by neglect attitude impacts the taxpayers as opposed to maintaining structures as we go. In essence our initial investments go straight to hell then taxpayers are hit with a large problem that could have been prevented.

The example is a poll put to LJW readers in October 2007:

How should the school district pay for a $16.5 million maintenance backlog in elementary schools?

When future options are presented to USD 497 taxpayers the option of spending annual outlay funds over a 3-4 year period as opposed to a another bond issue or increasing USD 497 taxes could be among them

In fact it would be quite thoughtful for this BOE to set in stone never again could millions upon millions upon millions of USD 497 tax dollars be spent without USD 497 taxpayer approval. I reference the reckless spending on the most recent PLAY sports project. Let the voters decide whether or not they want to be reckless.

Richard Heckler 6 years, 6 months ago

City wants to build a new rec center plus a field house on the west side. This new expensive project should seek voter approval. I say we're looking at close to $20,000,000

Plus there is an expensive ongoing parks department project at Clinton Lake...who knows what the cost is on this project?

The east side rec center came in around $5 million if my memory serves me well. Fine let’s agree to a $5 million west side rec center

Richard Heckler 6 years, 6 months ago

An excellent public school system is economic growth material! New buildings are irrelevant!

Would you favor a sales tax increase to provide more money for Lawrence teacher salaries?

Teacher Salary Support

Of 5,198 voting 80% said yes. Remarkable ( of course we know this won't fly UNLESS the state legislature says yes)

BUT instead of shooting for a tax increase I say city government help out the school district.

Lend 10% of the existing 1995 city sales tax money to the school district to keep existing schools open AND give teachers a raise. “Let the voter decide” This will leave 90% of the sales tax to the park department…. Not too shabby.

BTW this special sales tax can be delegated to any need. It is NOT dedicated.

Richard Heckler 6 years, 6 months ago

Let’s Audit!

It is my assertion that some audits need to take place before displacing students,closing down existing small classes and spending millions upon millions upon millions on new buildings.

Taxpayers will want absolutely hard evidence that this makes fiscal sense. The whole concept of closing and/or tearing down perfectly good buildings then building new ones will be tough to swallow.

The one fact that remains constant: smaller class sizes STILL produce the most desired results. USD 497 has that scenario in place as we speak aka paid for neighborhood schools. More families are moving into these areas as well = best not close these schools.

Children walking and riding bikes to schools is a healthy concept. Not only that this current system is producing very good results academically. It's not broke.

Also what has been suggested is inequitable consolidation.

The original task force that made such decisions were told consolidation was the only option available which left a lot to be desired. The task force was going to keep meeting until that decision was reached.

Of course the BOE consolidation proponents were the ones presenting the case for consolidation which was not fiscal hard evidence by any stretch of the imagination.

Richard Heckler 6 years, 6 months ago

Plan A. Pass a bond issue BUT NOT for new buildings. I cannot support.

What if plan A fails?

Plan B.

REhab our elementary schools over a 3-4 period with existing USD 497 property taxes that cover capital expenditures. This is feasible. and fiscally responsible.

How should the school district pay for a $16.5 million maintenance backlog in elementary schools?

School priorities

Flap Doodle 6 years, 6 months ago

Getting your recycling done on this thread, merrill?

aryastark1984 6 years, 5 months ago

I am easily confused, so please oh please explain to me why it is that we are preceding with a task force plan that is predicated on assumptions that are demonstrably false.

Assumption 1: Topeka has cut our budget so much that we can't afford all the schools. Truth: The district ended with nearly a million surplus

Assumption 2: We must prepare for future custs to State Base Aid and can't raise the LOB to cover those cuts.
Truth: At this point it looks like we will be able to raise the LOB AND WILL NEED TO DO SO REGARDLESS OF WHETHER SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED. What do you think Lawrence residents? Are you willing vote for a bond to build new schools and tear down old ones AND increase the LOB to pay teachers????

Assumption 3. The East Side is shrinking and the West side is growing. So, we need to consolidate the East side and move those resources West. TRUTH: THIS IS FLAT OUT WRONG. Current enrollment figures for this year show INCREASED ENROLLMENT in the East side schools. AND according to an expensive consulting group, these East side schools are expected to continue growing for the next 5 years. What about the West side? Deerfield, Langston Hughes, Quail Run are projected to shrink!!!!! Pinkney and Hillcrest are projected to increase by more than 10%. New York by 33%!!!! Cordley, by ~ 3%. The only West side schools that are projected to grow are Broken Arrow and Sunflower, which are both currently AT or exceeding capacity as a result of closing Wakarusa.

Here is the punchline people. If you close and consolidate, in 5 years the district will be right back at you to tell you that our East Side schools have EXCEEDED capacity and we need a new East Side school.

LJW why are you not reporting on THAT?

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