Wakarusa Valley School would close next year and at least four of six other elementary schools in Lawrence would face consolidation within three to five years, under recommendations being forwarded to the Lawrence school board next week.
The recommendations won approval consensus Monday from the Lawrence Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force, whose members finished work that started upon their appointment more than eight months ago.
Scott Morgan, a school board member and co-chairman of the task force, hailed the group’s work compiling data, criteria and conclusions, offering concrete steps for solving “an issue that has challenged this community” for 25 to 30 years.
“It’s just been chewing at this community,” Morgan said. “We need to figure it out and take a step forward — whatever it is — and focus on what’s important here, and that’s the kids.
“I think we’ve taken a majestic step forward for this community. … It’s something we can build on.”
Members spent three hours discussing a variety of options for the future of the district’s 15 elementary schools, spending the bulk of their time deciding whether either one or two of three previously identified schools should close: Cordley, Pinckney or Wakarusa Valley.
In the end, members decided that Wakarusa Valley — the district’s smallest, with 165 students projected for next year — should be closed. The building is at 1104 E. 1000 Road, just southeast of Clinton Lake.
Also recommended by the task force: The school board should “start conversations” soon with administrators, teachers, parents and others connected with six other schools, to discuss how — not if — some schools would be consolidated during the next three to five years.
The six schools in the running for consolidation are Kennedy, New York, Pinckney, Cordley, Hillcrest and Sunset Hill.
The task force recommends that the school board consolidate the six schools into either four or possibly three, either by adding onto existing schools or building new ones. The district would propose financing the work with a bond issue that also would include improvements at remaining elementary schools, all without increasing the district’s current property tax rate.
Much of Monday’s discussion endorsed combining Kennedy and New York into one school, and Hillcrest and Sunset Hill into another. But members ultimately opted to support the inclusion of people who would be most affected by such decisions in helping make it work.
“It leaves it open for the community to come to the table, to be part of the process, so a bond issue is more likely to pass,” said Jessica Beeson, a task force member.
Board at attention
School board members are scheduled to receive the recommendations during their next meeting, set for 7 p.m. Monday at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive. Both Morgan and Rich Minder, the board’s president, served as leaders of the task force and will write the report that goes to the full board.
All five other board members were in the audience Monday, listening alongside dozens of parents, principals, school board candidates and others interested in the task force’s long-term vision for the district’s elementary schools, given financial constraints.
Vanessa Sanburn, for one, plans to meet soon with parents of some Wakarusa Valley students, to hear their concerns about their school’s potential closure.
She also knows that she and her fellow board members will need to cut $3 million in spending for the next academic year and that closing Wakarusa Valley would be expected to save the district nearly $500,000 a year beginning in 2011-12.
“I really appreciate all the work the task force did,” Sanburn said, after the meeting. “Their recommendation is a very heavy one. The budget situation is dire enough that I think I am prepared to take their recommendation and use it to prevent further program cuts. But I do want to have those conversations and see that their voices are heard.”
Jen Nelson, who has had two kids go through Wakarusa Valley and has another two there now, knows that board members have yet to decide anything and that there’s still time to make a case for keeping the school open.
But she heard plenty from task force members about the need for equity in the district, something she hopes holds true for families who would have their children transferred into Broken Arrow, Schwegler and Sunflower schools.
“The Wakarusa families need to have some say in how this all goes down,” said Nelson, a leader in the school’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Committee. “The sad thing is, our children will be all split up. My children will no longer have their buddies around them. But having said that, they will be OK. …
“It’s terrible for anyone, but there have to be sacrifices. And we’re the sacrificed.”