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Archive for Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Consolidation task

A local group has been told to move forward on plans to consolidate elementary schools, but key questions remain.

October 26, 2011

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Members of a group working on elementary school consolidation may have emerged from Monday’s meeting with the Lawrence school board with as many questions as answers about the task ahead of them.

The goal of the meeting was to provide clearer instructions for the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group. The group was formed to come up with scenarios for closing two or three elementary schools in the central part of the city in the next two or three years. However, after the group was appointed, four new members took their seats on the seven-member school board, and members of the working group needed to know whether their charge had changed.

At Monday’s meeting, the board offered some specific instructions, but there also were some contradictions. For instance, the board told the working group members they should be creative in some areas but they shouldn’t spend any time considering what many would consider the creative idea of establishing “magnet” or theme-based schools.

An even bigger issue was the matter of a bond issue to fund whatever construction the working group proposes as part of its plan. The board told the group to assume that voters would approve a bond issue to fund whatever plan it comes up with, but, at the same time, at least two board members said they believed it was highly unlikely that a bond issue would be approved.

Making improvements at one or more of the six elementary schools in question or even building an entirely new building probably is a key component to winning the support of people in those attendance areas and perhaps the voting public. Consolidation efforts need to be seen as an improvement for students in those schools, not just a cost-cutting measure. It’s also true, as some board members pointed out, that the district is paying off some earlier bond issues and might be able to pay off a new bond issue to fund elementary school construction without raising the local tax levy.

Even so, approval of a new bond issue is far from certain, especially if it doesn’t have the wholehearted support of the board. The economy continues to lag, and many taxpayers are having trouble making ends meet. There also is significant uncertainty about state funding for public schools and plans that may be forthcoming from the Brownback administration to shift more of that funding responsibility to local taxpayers.

In the end, the school board told the working group to just come up with a plan and let the board and the community consider how it might be funded. Perhaps that is enough direction to allow the working group to move forward, but it leaves a lot of uncertainty about a task that likely will have a significant impact on the community’s education future.

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