School communities

Members of the elementary school task force deserve the community’s thanks for their hard work and insight on some difficult issues

February 27, 2011


The task force appointed last spring to study elementary school facilities in Lawrence has done an admirable job of examining a situation that has spurred considerable discord in the community through the years.

On Monday, the Lawrence Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force will formally present its recommendations to the Lawrence school board. Among those recommendations is that the district close Wakarusa Valley School next year and consider the consolidation of up to six central city elementary schools within the next three to five years.

A recommendation to close one or more schools is bound to stir a certain amount of opposition in any community. People become attached not only to the teachers and other families in their schools but to the history and tradition of the school buildings themselves. Although we are an extremely mobile society, they often see the schools as a physical center for their neighborhoods. They are justifiably concerned about the effect schools have on residential property values.

One of the ideas that came out of early discussions by the task force was that there is more than one way for schools to build a sense of community. Physical proximity may be one measure of “community,” but people and students also form communities based on their interests, activities and needs.

Many students who currently attend Wakarusa Valley School don’t live close to the rural school, but they nonetheless have become part of that school’s “community.” If the school board decides to concur with the task force’s recommendation to close that school, those families and students all will be asked to join another such community.

It’s a change, but it doesn’t have to be a negative change. The possibility of a combined New York/Kennedy school and a combined Sunset Hill/Hillcrest school drew considerable support among task force members, who said Pinckney and Cordley schools also should be considered in consolidation talks.

The task force was about “facilities,” but it also was about “vision,” and one of its visions was to try to solicit both the funding and the public input to make any future consolidations a positive — or at least an acceptable — change for those associated with those schools. A bond issue to expand current buildings or build new schools to accommodate consolidation efforts might be a hard sell in the current economy, but broad community participation in the planning might produce the necessary buy-in.

There is little doubt that everyone who has served on the elementary school task force has a new appreciation for the difficult financial and educational issues that face teachers, administrators and school board members every day. The task force members deserve the community’s thanks for taking on a difficult task and presenting some recommendations that should help move the district in a positive direction in the years to come.


Kookamooka 7 years ago

Using the word "consolidation" instead of the word "closing" goes a big way toward helping people feel better. Knowing where our kids will be going to school in the future and combing schools not too far away from each other is a little comforting.

I think we all realize that the tax cuts of the last 10 years were going to lead to this.

Eroding the stability our country by squandering our collective contribution to a smart and safe society is a republican M.O. Don't they realize that people don't re-invest their tax savings by voluntarily contributing to society, they spend it on big screen TV's? Now the kids have to suffer. Children are paying the piper for the failure of their parents, grandparents and legislators to make good decisions.

cato_the_elder 7 years ago

Let's see: A school attended by rural families, a number of which vote Republican, is going to get closed by a school board consisting almost entirely of liberal Democrats, and a "republican (sic) M.O." is the cause? Good grief, wake up - it's all about priorities. Sure, money's tight at the state level, which is only a problem because our school finance formula was radically changed in the early 1990s to require property tax money to be funneled through the state and thus remove much of the independent funding power that had previously resided at the local level. If it were up to the voters of Lawrence to increase their taxes (not through bond elections, but for operating costs) to keep elementary schools open, they would - but for close to two decades now that's not been possible. Kookamooka, if you wish to assess blame to anyone, I suggest that you check out who was behind changing our school finance formula in the early '90s. Local school districts have been slaves to Topeka ever since.

kugrad 7 years ago

So Cato, you know all the rural families in Dg. County to be Republicans? Interesting. I'm sure many would be surprised to learn that. Then you go on to label the board as "almost entirely liberal Democrats." Since "almost entirely" out of, what, seven, means all but one or two at the most. Again, I don't think you can back that up.

Your history of the revision of the school finance formula leaves a lot out. The state cut their portion of the property tax that went to schools to record lows during the time period you mentioned. Then they put that tax burden back on localities through a series of back door tax increases. You know the kind; you say you are cutting state taxes at the same time you raise local taxing authority.

The implication you are making is that the inequitable funding of schools across the state was a good system and we should return to it. The courts have already been down that road and held that it resulted in inequities in actual educational opportunity around the state. Face it, 1 mil increase in Lawrence is significant. 1 mil increase in Galena or Gardner, not so much. It results in haves and have nots. That isn't acceptable in our public schools. Go back and revisit Brown Vs. The Board of Education; or do conservatives now want to pretend that is not settled law and should be revisited?

cato_the_elder 7 years ago

Kugrad, you need to re-read what I said: "A school attended by rural families, a number of which vote Republican...." From this statement, you said, "So Cato, you know all the rural families in Dg. County to be Republicans?" Your proficiency in reading appears to be at about the same level as that of the 60% of eighth-graders in Wisconsin who, according to the U.S. Department of Education, can't read proficiently. I certainly hope that you aren't a teacher in our school district.

Concerning the current Lawrence school board, there's one member known to be a liberal Republican and one other whose party affiliation is not generally known. All others are liberal Democrats. If you don't know that then you aren't familiar with the current USD 497 board.

As for the rest of your claims regarding school finance, I've responded to them below.

Kookamooka 7 years ago

No, Cato. Let me make this clear for you. The school financing formula is just a red herring republicans throw out to distract voters from seeing the real problem....the reduction of revenue based on unnecessary tax breaks, refunds and cuts. Get with it Cato, if you and your ilk believed in this country at all, or had any patriotic good will toward others and not just yourselves and your cronies, you would see how the republican party has devastated this country, financially. Depleting the financial resources with their ridiculous "trickle down" economics from the Regan administration, and at the national level, the egregious losses of the banking industry that required tax payers to bail them led out to the impoverishment of a nation. Hope you republican's are happy because it's on your head. The market collapsed just before Mr. Obama took office or is every one forgetting the bag of *^#% he was handed. republicans are robbers and we all have to pay for their mistakes. Maybe they'll get their way and bust the unions. Then the children can go back to work in the factories instead of a going to school.

cato_the_elder 7 years ago

Kookamooka, you liberal Dems are haters par excellence. If you can ever get over your hate, you should study the history of school finance in Kansas and how local school districts' individual budget powers were emasculated by the changes in school finance that I described.

In the late 1980s, before these changes were enacted, USD 497 voters overwhelmingly approved a bond issue to increase teachers' salaries substantially, which most of us supported. It passed overwhelmingly. It also represents exactly what can no longer be done now by local school districts. The throw-'em-a-bone "local option budget" is all that's available, and it's capped.

If you want simply to keep hating and remain ignorant, that's your right, but what I've told you is entirely accurate. The Blue Valley school district in particular has fought this for years, but the formula has remained essentially unchanged since the early 1990s when it was radically altered to switch control over tax monies collected from local school districts to state government.

Kookamooka 7 years ago

Unlike most christian conservatives I will turn the other cheek and wish for love and goodwill for all, not just the wealthy few who can afford private schools. I will gladly pay my taxes the patriotic American way. It is my duty as a citizen of this great country.

cato_the_elder 7 years ago

Kookamooka, I don't like private schools any more than you do, and I don't support vouchers. However, when vast amounts of money continue to be spent on public education with the results being inferior to what they were even 25 years ago, much less 40, sooner or later the consumers of public education are going to revolt and say they've had enough. Have you ever talked with a veteran Lawrence teacher about what teaching in the public schools is like now compared with how it was done 20 years ago? If you haven't, you should. There's much more to a successful public education system than money alone, which is another topic altogether, but to hide behind the notion that all that's needed to improve present-day public education is to spend vastly increased sums of money on it is naive in the extreme.

kugrad 7 years ago

The only problem Cato is that "the changes in school finance that I [you] decribed" are incomplete and misleading. What you've told us is not "entirely accurate." The formula was not changed "To switch control over tax monies collected from local school districts to state government." The changes you refer to were the result of a valid court case that argued, correctly, that it was unconstitutional to let some Kansas school districts be better funded than others since funding the schools was a mandate of the state constitution. The state had already begun to cut back the portion of property taxes that they collected to put towards school funding. They cut their proportion to the lowest it had been in years and left localities scrambling to make up the difference.

Your version of these events is incorrect. I don't believe that it is better to let affluent districts like Blue Valley have better schools than other Kansas communities. The State is obligated to fund an appropriate education for children in every part of the state.

cato_the_elder 7 years ago

Kugrad, let me enlighten you as to what really happened. One state district court judge in Topeka before whom school finance litigation was pending in 1991 issued a preliminary statement that if he were to rule, he would likely hold the then-current system unconstitutional. That was the only legal involvement of any kind before the legislation was passed. In essence, the Kansas legislature caved in to one state district court judge's personal judicial activism and passed a radically different school finance scheme. It was immediately challenged. Another district judge held part of the legislation constitutional and part of it unconstitutional. The Kansas Supreme Court ultimately held all of it constitutional, in essence stating that if this was what the legislature wanted to do, it would not disturb the legislature's decision. In short, the legislature's ill-conceived, hasty decision to cave in to the judicial activism of one district judge proved fatal to local school districts' efforts to retain some semblance of control over their own budgets. A different, more modest approach could easily have passed muster with the Kansas Supreme Court, but the legislature's gutless, shoot-from-the-hip approach set the stage for state control of all public education financing.

My account of this was entirely accurate. I see from your prior posts that you support the abolition of local control over school spending in favor of raising income taxes at the state level to fund public education far beyond current levels, and also support the bottomless pit that public education spending has already become. We can agree to disagree, but sooner or later the money's going to run out. If you don't know what percentage of our current state budget goes to spending on public education, you should find out. You might learn something, but I'm sure it wouldn't alter your tax-and-spend views on the subject.

kugrad 7 years ago

Cato, Your account is rife with opinionated statements, so it is not entirely accurate. It is your interpretation of events. I favor restoring the State's share of funding an adequate education. I believe the schools are underfunded. I do know how much of the State's budget goes toward education (although I am focused here on kg-12). My argument is that taxes were cut too far to support an education system that is 1) equitable and 2) excellent. I do not favor abolition of local control over school district spending, but I do favor the State being the source of most of the revenue. Otherwise, we have inequity, which I hold is unconstitutional.

I do thank you for your polite tone and non-snarky responses. At least we can disagree without calling each other names.

Have a good week.

cato_the_elder 7 years ago

Kugrad, there's nothing whatsoever inaccurate in anything I said about the history of school finance in Kansas in the early '90s. It was entirely factual. In particular, the Shawnee County District Judge involved has on many occasions described himself as a "judicial activist" and is quite proud of that fact. What I reported on the history of the litigation at that time is exactly what happened.

Our opinions differ on whether or not it was a good idea. That's our mutual right in a free society.

kugrad 7 years ago

Cato, I disagree that these are factually correct: "In essence, the Kansas legislature caved in to one state district court judge's personal judicial activism and passed a radically different school finance scheme." "In short, the legislature's ill-conceived, hasty decision to cave in to the judicial activism of one district judge proved fatal to local school districts' efforts to retain some semblance of control over their own budgets."

I believe that your history of the litigation is correct, not you analyses. Unequal educational opportunity is unconstitutional. Brown vs. The Board applies to equal funding. Without changes to funding, we will have inequal opportunity across the state. What you call "local control," really means one locality can provide a better education than another locality if they want to pay for it. I believe that is both wrong and relieves the State of its funding responsibilities. I believe the State of Kansas is obligated to provide equal educational opportunity across each community. If you disagree, I am open to listening to your reasoning.

cato_the_elder 7 years ago

You'll find very few, if any, people who were in the trenches at the time who would disagree with the two statements of mine that you quoted, whether or not they favored what ultimately resulted. They might find them slightly rhetorical, but not inaccurate. Both of those statements quite honestly reflect precisely what happened, especially regarding loss of local control. Those who favored what was done were proud of how it was done, and it was done exactly as I stated. How old are you? Were you in those trenches?

As for your concerns with "equality of opportunity," it's really pretty obvious: It's impossible to provide "equal educational opportunity" to every public school student throughout the state of Kansas, period. For that matter, it's impossible to provide "equal educational opportunity" to every public school student within any one school district or, for that matter, within even one school building. Everyone involved in public education knows this, but very few are willing to admit it. There are simply too many variables, only a few of which are family background and history, innate intelligence, and the widely disparate ranges of the effectiveness and abilities of teachers and the effectiveness and abilities of school administrators, from superintendents to building principals on down. Based on my experience, I can assure you that nothing is more Quixotic than claiming that it's somehow possible to ensure "equal educational opportunity" to "every student" in any context. Moreover, the notion that money is the only thing that will ensure "equality" is ridiculous. Yes, any school district that is completely without money can't educate anyone, but we haven't seen that in Kansas since pioneer days. Given how much education money is routinely wasted on one new fad after another (ever heard of "outcomes-based education?") instead of providing good, sound, practical educations to Kansas students, the real issue is how the money is spent, not constantly measuring with micrometers how much of it is spent. Continuing to spend more and more money on public education in the name of "equality" while results continue to decline, without major changes within public education itself (the first and foremost of which would be abolishing schools of education and doing away with requiring "teaching certificates" to teach) is patently absurd.

wow365 7 years ago

Sounds good on paper - but a school with an hour bus ride away isn't really joining a community - it's visiting one. I agree schools need to be consolidated, communities merge and change and continue. But if you close Wakarusa in rural Lawrence you are taking away the community - not merging. I am surprised the Board of Economic Development has not been involved in these discussions. The thousands of dollars spent on researching Horizon 2020 and creating the urban growth zone just took a step back 20 years. I guess one positive is there will be less restrictions in building in rural Lawrence as Douglas County can get rid of the urban growth zone - oh and another, taxes will go down significantly when the new appraisals come out. One realtor said it would take about $80,000 off the price of a home so far from an elementary school. Closing Cordley wont affect the cost of housing as much. Sorry LJW there is more at play here than logic, an agenda of another sort.

Kelly Johnson 7 years ago

Closing 1 school and "consolidating" 3 others equals CLOSING FOUR SCHOOLS. I'm sorry, but I'm not thankful to any task force making this recommendation.

GMom05 7 years ago

I can accept and appreciate all the hard work the task force members went to in order to fulfill their charges. The subcommittees all jumped in and produced well thought-out reports. What I take issue with is the point about a month ago, when the task force was suddenly asked to chose from 10 closure scenarios. That's when the discussions turned political and no longer had much to do with what was researched and presented in the reports. The scenarios aren't even well thought out and certainly the conclusion the 18 members came to was without thought to actual budget constraints we are facing next year. And that's where the discussion ended. Close a school, which one, is all we want to know. Well, I want to know, if you close the smallest school, with the smallest savings, requiring no capital cost repairs, to the tune of maybe $250,000 in operational savings, where exactly are you going to get the rest of the 3 million, hmmm? It's simple math. Sorry folks, this is not a sound fiscal recommendation.

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