Lawrence school board will conduct a formal public hearing Monday night regarding a proposal to close Wakarusa Valley School, 1104 E. 1000 Road, just southeast of Clinton Lake.
The hearing is set to begin at 7 p.m. at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive.
Anyone wishing to speak will be required to sign in. Each speaker will be limited to three minutes.
Once the formal hearing is complete, board members will open their regular business meeting. On the agenda is a discussion about recommendations of the Lawrence Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force, including the prospect of closing Wakarusa Valley.
A vote is expected, although not required.
As proposed, this would be the last school year Wakarusa Valley would be open.
Voters already are deciding who will serve as the Lawrence school board’s next majority, but incumbent board members will be the ones setting a course for shrinking the number of elementary schools in Lawrence during the next five years.
The discussion promises to reach two crucial points Monday night, as board members meet at 7 p.m. at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive, to:
• Conduct a formal public hearing and then determine whether to close Wakarusa Valley School at the end of this academic year.
• Discuss how or whether to proceed with plans to consolidate six other elementary schools into either three or four during the next three to five years.
Such major decisions will come during the last meeting the board conducts before voters decide, on April 5, who will occupy four of the board’s seven seats come July 1.
But no matter what happens in the election, current board members and administrators say they’re ready to make rulings on plans that have been in the works for months and only now have reached the board’s decision-making agenda.
“It’s important that the present board set the course,” said Rick Doll, district superintendent. “If the new board wants to change that course, they certainly have that option. But we don’t have time to wait.”
Officials have been warning for months that the district likely would face a $3 million cut heading into next year’s budget, one that has yet to be formed. That formed much of the backdrop for work of the Lawrence Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force, which met for eight months before recommending the closure and consolidation options now making their way to the board.
‘A legitimate compromise’
Scott Morgan, a board member who will leave office at the end of June, said he would have preferred to close three elementary schools for the coming year to help the district accommodate ongoing budget cuts from the state.
But the task force — on which Morgan served as co-chairman — came to a consensus that calls for closing Wakarusa Valley and consolidating others in connection with an anticipated bond issue that would address renovations, expansions and even new construction for elementary schools.
“For the health of the community and the general sanity of everybody, it probably makes the most sense to move forward with the task force recommendations,” he said. “It’s a legitimate compromise, one made with a lot of labor, and we should respect it.
“If we walk away from it, I don’t know what group of people would ever volunteer for anything ever again.”
Morgan’s vision: Close Wakarusa Valley, then talk next month about how to involve the public in planning for how — not whether — to consolidate schools. He favors making the plans fairly concrete:
• Consolidate Hillcrest and Sunset Hill schools at a new school, which would be built on the site of Sunset Hill.
• Consolidate schools in eastern Lawrence, determining which ones — New York and Kennedy? Cordley and Kennedy? Build a new school at the site of the former East Heights School? — after having discussions with people involved with the schools and their surrounding neighborhoods.
Such a process should work, Morgan said, because there’s really no other option.
“We need to lay out the vision for consolidation, and then set up the community input process to implement that framework,” he said. “We’re not just saying: ‘You guys figure it out; what do you want to do?’ We say, ‘This is what we want to do, and you figure out the best way to make it work.’
“We’ll set that framework in place, and it would have to be reversed by a future board. And the reason that won’t happen is the budget situation will remain so odious, they will be as desperate for revenue as we are, and they will come to the same realization that every board — and I mean every board — has reached for the past 25 years: The one thing we have too much of is elementary buildings. That will force their hands.”
Bottom line: “Reality is what will make this thing happen.”
No time to wait
All nine candidates for the four seats on the board generally have indicated their appreciation for the task force process, and emphasized the importance of involving the public in any plans to consolidate schools.
But Bob Byers, a board member with two years remaining on his term, said that waiting up to five years for consolidation to become reality would be the wrong way to go.
The district needs to close at least two schools for next year, he said. He sees Cordley as the most logical candidate, given its physical condition and lack of ADA compliance.
“If we’re really going to close a school, let’s not keep a school open that we’re going to have to turn around and spend $3 million to repair,” he said.
The task force essentially determined that the district should have 12 elementary schools instead of the current 15, he said. That’s based on enrollments and best practices and building sizes and all sorts of data and observations and calculations.
The budget situation is the board’s responsibility, Byers said, and after cutting $8 million during the past two years and looking ahead to another $3 million next year and likely facing more in the years ahead — well, he figures, there’s no sense waiting.
“I agree with the task force 100 percent: Our long-term goal should be to consolidate,” Byers said. “The problem is I don’t necessarily see how, in today’s budget climate, that we have time to do that.”
Superintendent Doll has indicated that the district could use contingency funds to help cover budget cuts in the next two to three years but has cautioned that such funds wouldn’t last long without the board making decisions about other cost savings. Closing Wakarusa Valley, for example, would be expected to save the district nearly $500,000 annually.
Vanessa Sanburn, another board member with two years remaining on her term, likes that idea. She favors following the task force plans for closing Wakarusa Valley and consolidating other schools.
“This plan is a consensus, a compromise, that honors our community’s values,” Sanburn said. “I think, going forward, that’s going to be important.”