After eight months of compiling, studying, touring, reading, assessing, writing, meeting, discussing, calculating and otherwise preparing to define a vision for the future of the Lawrence school district’s elementary schools, members of an appointed task force now find themselves left with a single responsibility.
That would be deciding.
And whether the two-dozen members of the Lawrence Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force actually will settle on some recommendations Monday night is an open question, especially as it pertains to a divisive point awaiting consensus: Whether to recommend closing one or two elementary schools for next year.
Even more contentious: Which school or schools should close, if any.
“It may be unworkable for the task force,” said Marcel Harmon, a member of the group who is still seeking background information and data to help guide his decisions. “It’s a pretty heavy recommendation, even though we know it’s just a recommendation.”
Instead, it will be members of the Lawrence school board who will make any decisions about whether to close a school or schools for the 2011-12 academic year or beyond. The district is facing an estimated budget cut of $3 million because of declines in revenue from the state.
But board members did form the task force back in May, an effort to build a long-term and budget-conscious plan through consensus from a broad cross-section of the community.
The task force’s given charge was simple: Recommend a vision and plan based on “varied community and educational values,” and how to reflect those values given “restraints of current and anticipated resources.”
The board said it was seeking suggestions for improving the district’s 15 elementary schools, with stated options that could include school replacement, remodeling and closure.
Task force members already have reached tentative consensus on the first two options:
l Replacement: Within three to five years, consolidate Kennedy and New York schools in eastern Lawrence, and Hillcrest and Sunset Hill schools in central Lawrence.
l Remodeling: Reports identify upgrades, repairs, additions and other work necessary at each school — including elimination of all portable classrooms — although members have not considered any specific plan. Such work likely would be included in a proposal for a future bond issue.
Closure? Back on Jan. 31, task force members tentatively agreed to study potential closure of either one or two of three specific schools for next year: Cordley, 1837 Vt.; Pinckney, 810 W. Sixth St.; or Wakarusa Valley, 1104 E 1000 Road.
Maintaining the status quo had been dismissed as untenable.
But last Monday, task force members entered district headquarters through a crowd of Pinckney supporters outside. In the meeting room, about 50 people listened as members were urged to seek consensus about whether to pursue closure of either one school or two, and to identify which one or ones.
Task force members often leaned on their background material, gathered during months of meetings and site visits and e-mail communications involving four subcommittees whose collective work produced 13 criteria for recommendations.
But even the school board president acknowledged that such work could only go so far.
“There is evidence in all of the committees’ reports to support any proposal,” said Rich Minder, board president and co-chairman of the task force.
Mark Bradford, the board’s vice president, sat in the audience as the discussions bounced from support for saving one school to advocating for closure of two or perhaps more, or maybe none. Fellow board members Vanessa Sanburn and Mary Loveland were there, too.
The talk avoided specific recommendations so often that facilitator Mike Neal invited task force members to forward their opinions via e-mail to help move the process ahead. None followed through — not with specific recommendations, anyway.
“I guess I was a little discouraged, perhaps, by the lack of people willing to have an open discussion as to go one way or another,” Bradford said. “This is where the rubber meets the road.”
Bradford still thinks the task force — “this great cross-section of the community” — will come through with concrete, specific recommendations for “naming names” of schools to be closed, all based on thousands of hours spent compiling and creating invaluable criteria to guide making such important decisions.
He’s uncertain what would happen next, should the evidence and testimony fail to produce a verdict.
‘Part of the process’
“It could be like a deadlocked jury: We ask them to go back, redeliberate and have some more meetings, have some more discussions,” Bradford said. “I guess the other side would be: ‘Thank you for your service,’ and then we’d have to take their information and come up with our own recommendations.”
While the task force has been striving for consensus, the school board would be tied to a less-stringent but more defined standard of decision-making.
“We’d need a majority,” he said.
The task force meets at 5:30 p.m. Monday at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive. Board members are scheduled to receive — but not act upon — the recommendations a week later.
Task force members, meanwhile, continue to receive pointed communications from people concerned about their schools, particularly the ones being discussed for potential closure.
“I certainly empathize with the school board members,” said Harmon, the task force member who is still mulling options. “It’s certainly not an enjoyable part of the process, but we realize it’s all part of the process.”