Members of an advisory group plan to start discussing actual possibilities for closing or expanding or building schools in older sections of town, just as elected officials are expecting by early next year.
Whether the group’s deliberations Nov. 21 will lead to actual recommendations by their Jan. 31 deadline remains an open question.
“I think they understand they’ve got to move,” said school board member Randy Masten, who observed Monday’s meeting from the audience. “People want a lot of information, but there comes a point where you have to move forward.”
Monday night, members of the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group spent more than two hours reviewing past discussions, exploring new ways to communicate, hearing how the district’s English as a Second Language program functions, determining how to consolidate requests for information, receiving student demographic data, and learning how various school representatives are receiving and sharing information outside meetings of the working group.
Several of the topics led some members to question why they even were discussed.
“In my opinion these are all very nebulous,” said Lois Orth-Lopes, a teacher at Cordley School, serving as an ex-officio member of the working group. “I’m getting frustrated.”
It wasn’t until after the meeting had reached its formal end — earlier this year, all 26 voting members had agreed by consensus that their gatherings would not go longer than two hours — that members started wondering whether they would ever start actually proposing and discussing and considering the very tasks they were assigned to consider: how to consolidate a list of six elementary schools into either three or four within two to three years.
The schools being considered for consolidation are Cordley, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill.
In two weeks — after spending 15 minutes reviewing and affirming and perhaps adding to a list of criteria for judging proposals — group members intend to actually start discussing ways schools might be closed, expanded or combined in the coming years, with anticipated financial support from a bond issue.
Group members have been told to operate as though a bond issue would pass and to remember that a bond issue likely could be structured so that property taxes would not go up, thanks previous bond issues going off the books.
“That can’t hurt us,” said Dawn Shew, a parent representing the Kennedy community.
Recommending which schools should close and how other schools and boundaries should be expanded or adjusted or reconfigured will require plenty of give and take, said Josh Davis, a parent from the New York community, finishing up his sixth meeting of the working group. But at least discussions during the seventh promise to finally hit some form of tangible possibilities that at least can be judged or refined or considered or, well, anything.
“I cannot believe I’m going to get home, and my wife’s going to say, ‘What did you talk about?’ and I’m going to have to say, ‘Nothing,’” Davis said. “While I appreciate all the data and everything, I cannot believe we’re this far and we haven’t talked about anything. It’s driving me crazy.”
So he suggested a combination that has been brought up before: Combine New York and Kennedy, the district’s two elementary schools with the highest concentrations of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches, a measure district officials use to measure poverty.
Davis isn’t saying it’s the right answer. But it’s something to talk about, to get the discussion going, and he’d like to hear how district administrators would address issues related to poverty in a large, combined school.
“I’m ready to talk about it,” Davis told group members. “Let’s talk about it because we’ve talked about it, just among our New York folks. And we see positives and negatives. And we can’t decide which way it leans. And we are dying for some information.”
Davis expects such information during the next meeting: 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Nov. 21 at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive. That’s when others will be invited to bring their own ideas, with those suggestions to be posted on large sheets of paper displayed around the room for all to see.
“Given where we are, let’s now crystallize on some options, and let’s make a case for those options and expand on the strengths and weaknesses of those options,” said Kissan Joseph, a parent from the Sunset Hill community, who worries that the group could spend another three months coming up with a long list of criteria to use in assessing scenarios. “There’s only one criteria: what’s good for our community.”