After five months of meeting, greeting, dreaming, researching, information-gathering and scenario-seeking, members of an advisory group charged with recommending how to shrink the number of elementary schools in the Lawrence school district finally saw a potential “scenario” taped up on a wall.
Then promptly outlined how it couldn’t work.
The scenario — one that would combine New York and Kennedy schools at what likely would be a new building at the site of the former East Heights School — had surfaced as an anonymous suggestion by a member of the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group.
Then reality hit.
Natasha Naramore, a group representative from the New York School community, started the criticism with a pointed question.
“What’s the size, the area site,” she said, “for East Heights?”
“Approximately four and a half acres,” answered Mike Myers, also from the New York community.
Naramore: “So you’re building a 500-kid school on four and a half acres, when all of our other 500-kid schools are on how many acres?”
Myers: “Twelve acres, eight minimum.”
Then her questioning turned into an answer.
“How does that meet equity, in any way whatsoever?” she asked, exasperated. “That’s what I’d like to know.”
The discussion continued, with group members hearing from hired professionals.
Building on such a site, as is, wouldn’t be a first choice, said John Wilkins, an architect for Gould Evans Associates, the district’s architect. But the district could acquire more land, possibly through a land swap with the Boys and Girls Club or a purchase of adjacent property. Or a new school could have more than one floor, perhaps leaving enough room for parking and a playground.
“If that was your only option, then you could creatively figure out how to make something work,” Wilkins said.
And that’s just what members of the working group are being called upon to do: figure out how a district facing declining revenues should close either two or three elementary schools within the next two years, a plan that would anticipate voter approval of a bond issue to finance renovations, expansions and perhaps new construction — all without a tax increase, thanks to previous bond issues going off the books in the next several years — to ease the inevitable disruptions that closures would cause.
The working group had its first meeting in June, but only on Monday night did members start facing the frustrating realities that certainly will face each and every idea proposed by the time recommendations are due to the Lawrence school board by the end of January.
“They get it,” said Bob Byers, who joined fellow board members Keith Diaz Moore, Rick Ingram and Shannon Kimball in the audience at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive. “They’re experiencing what we as board members experience when we get in the middle of budget cuts — which is, anything you do is going to hurt somebody.”
Members of the working group come from the communities of six schools identified by the school board as candidates for consolidation: Cordley, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill. The group also includes members from Woodlawn School, although the school is not a candidate for closure.
Members of the previous school board formed the group at the recommendation of another advisory group: the Lawrence Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force, which identified the schools as consolidation candidates after spending eight months developing a “community vision” for elementary schools operating in an era of ongoing budget constraints.
That vision, adopted by the previous school board, included closing Wakarusa Valley School at the end of the past school year.
At times during Monday’s two-hour meeting, members of the working group found themselves frustrated with a number of items:
• They wondered why scenarios from the earlier task force hadn’t been offered for discussion, despite being listed on the meeting agenda.
• They complained that they hadn’t received some requested data until Sunday, and then some not at all.
• And they complained that some members’ proposed scenarios had been split into multiple parts for separate discussions and considerations, even though some of the parts didn’t make sense while standing alone.
“Don’t break them apart,” said Lois Orth-Lopes, a Cordley teacher, directly to group facilitators. “Don’t do anything. Just send them out.”
Group members did agree Monday to come up with more ideas and send them to facilitators by this coming Sunday. That way, the ideas can be distributed to all members a week before the group’s next meeting, 7 p.m. Dec. 5.
After that, the group will have four meetings to get their work done.