Time is about to be up for a group of community members who have been tasked to decided which of Lawrence’s elementary schools should close.
The Lawrence school board last year appointed the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group. Members were to recommend a way to reduce six elementary schools — Cordley, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill — down to three or four within the next two years.
The deadline for the recommendation, which has already been extended once, is Feb. 15. As the day inches closer, it’s not clear what the recommendation will look like or if members will ask for more time.
“At this point, it’s getting the data and really needing to look at it and really seeing what it says,” Hillcrest parent Leslie Newman said.
The group is scheduled to meet two more times before Feb. 15. At a Jan. 30 meeting, Superintendent Rick Doll indicated that there could be room for one more meeting between the Feb. 15 deadline and the school board’s next meeting Feb. 27.
The past few meetings have been focused on reviewing consolidation scenarios that were created by groups representing each of the six schools. Last Monday, consultants from RSP presented maps for three of seven scenarios. Those maps showed how the boundary lines and school population would change for almost every elementary school in the district when just one school closes.
The district is paying the consultants $6,000 to study five scenarios. The other scenarios won’t be ready in time for the working group to examine them at the next meeting on Monday night. But consultants from Gould Evans will have information on the capacity of each of the six school sites.
Chuck Epp, a Cordley parent, said if they can get the information from the consultants in time, he believes the group will be able to make a recommendation.
“I think we can get through the work and generate a report. But if they aren’t able to get it to us in a timely manner, then we will have to ask for an extension,” Epp said.
Earlier in the process, the working group decided a consensus would be reached if all but five of the 24 members voted in favor of a recommendation. Essentially that means for a recommendation to pass, only one of the school groups and another voting member could oppose it. Stacey White, a Pinckney representative, doesn’t see one proposal garnering that much support.
“My sense is that we probably won’t have consensus on any one idea, but I do think there will be some ideas that have strong support from many members of the group,” she wrote in an email.
A lack of consensus doesn’t preclude a recommendation, White said.
“The best we can hope for might be that we present several different ideas and show how much agreement there was for those ideas within the group,” she wrote.
Early in the process, New York parent Mike Myers said it appeared the group was heading toward the scenario of consolidating New York and Kennedy and building a new school. The two schools have the district’s highest population of students from low-income households.
“My guess is early on there was some thought that it would be an easy solution to make the poor side of town do the heavy lifting,” Myers said. “But I don’t see it turning out that way.”
Myers also sees some members moving toward the recommendation of not closing any school, which goes against their mission.
No consolidation needed?
A group of parents who aren’t in the working group but represent four of the six schools up for consolidation has asked the school board to reconsider the charge it gave to the working group. They say new information about enrollment, class sizes and cost savings point to the benefits of not consolidating schools.
Among their concerns is data showing the schools are at 86 percent capacity and will be at 90 percent capacity in five years.
They also point to the increase in class sizes in the schools that would receive new students. And they note that five of the six schools being considered for consolidation have significant populations of at-risk students, which are best taught in smaller classes.
“Anybody who has followed the process knows if you close a school, there are implications well beyond it,” Epp said. “For example, when Wakarusa Valley closed, class sizes from the schools that received Wakarusa Valley students went up dramatically.”
Those arguments haven’t convinced White to reject the charge. During the process, White said she made the painful realization that consolidating schools was more about correcting a long-term trend than solving a short-term budget crisis.
“My personal opinion is that this consolidation issue was never about capacity alone. It’s driven by the fact that some of our schools, full or not, are pretty small and the fact that the budget perennially runs short. As a result, schools and children aren’t getting the resources they need,” she wrote in an email. By having students attend larger schools, she said, the schools will be more likely to provide full-time nurses, counselors and librarians.
White said she doesn’t want to have the same conversation about closing schools five years from now.
“We’d much rather come up with a solution that is sustainable for the district,” she wrote.