Someone, either on the Lawrence school board or in the district’s administrative offices, has decided to call the question on elementary school consolidation.
Tonight’s school board agenda includes an item labeled “Approval of Recommendation for Elementary Schools.” Here’s the recommendation up for consideration: “The administration recommends that the Board of Education decide the consolidation issue so the district can move forward toward a possible bond election in 2013.” It’s a pretty big decision. Does the administration have a recommendation on whether to pursue consolidation?
Next on the agenda are two suggested motions for school board members to consider. (As an aside, while it’s routine for Lawrence school administrators to suggest motions on agenda items, it seems a little insulting. Are the board members not smart enough to craft their own motions?) Anyway, the two motion options are: “I move that Lawrence Public Schools keep current elementary schools open,” or “I move that the Board of Education authorize the administration to recommend further consolidation of elementary schools.”
That’s the multimillion-dollar question that school board members need to answer.
Background information in the agenda notes that the board voted in 2010 to combine the East Heights Early Childhood Center with Kennedy School, then charged a community task force to study consolidation. Acting on that group’s recommendation, the board closed Wakarusa Valley School last fall and formed another working group charged with coming up with a plan to consolidate six central-city elementary schools into three or four schools. The final report issued by that group about six weeks ago offered a consensus on only one issue: A bond issue is necessary to make repairs and additions to existing schools. The group offered no plan for consolidating schools.
So the ball is back in the school board’s court.
Four new members joined the seven-member board last June, and their commitment to school consolidation appears less solid than that of their predecessors. Consolidation almost certainly would involve more than simply closing a school or two and dispersing those students to other buildings. The likely scenario would be for the district to build a new school or make major expansions to an existing school to facilitate consolidation. That’s where the bond issue comes in.
At this point, board members need to look at a number of factors. Enrollment projections supplied to the working group predicted a 4.8 percent increase in elementary enrollment by the 2016-17 school year. Is that realistic given Lawrence’s overall stagnant growth? If the goal of consolidation is to improve efficiency and perhaps save the district money, how long will it take to recoup the investment of a major bond issue to build and repair schools? And how likely is it that a bond issue would pass in the current economy?
Perhaps the biggest question mark is hanging over Topeka right now. Whether or not the Legislature approves major school finance changes proposed by Gov. Brownback this year, the state of school finance clearly is in flux and probably will remain so for the next several years.
No one said the answers would be easy, but at least the questions are back on the school board’s table, where they belong, not with a volunteer group struggling to figure out which direction the school board and administration want to go.
So which will it be, school board? Motion 1 or Motion 2?