The decision of a local school task force not to complete its charge of recommending how to consolidate central-city elementary schools is disappointing but not surprising.
For a number of reasons — most of them related to a lack of school district direction and leadership — members of the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group had struggled for five months to reach a consensus on how to reduce six elementary schools to three or four within the next two years. On Monday they announced they would not provide a specific consolidation recommendation. Instead, they decided to split into two groups: one that will make the case against any consolidation and the other that will argue that it might work. The only thing the entire group could agree on is the need for more money for local schools.
The very makeup of the group — almost all the members represented targeted schools — almost ensured its work would end in impasse. That outcome became more likely when the Lawrence school board, with a majority of new members, refused to expressly stand by the working group’s initial charge. The previous board had told the group to assume schools would be consolidated and to work toward the most positive way to accomplish that consolidation.
As Superintendent Rick Doll confirmed Monday, the political landscape has changed since June, when four new members joined the school board. Without solid direction from the board that consolidation would occur, working group members were understandably concerned about sticking their necks out by making specific consolidation recommendations. One working group member succinctly noted Monday that although the group wasn’t advocating keeping all schools open, “We just refuse to name schools and then play the villain to their (the school board’s) hero.”
In addition to the shifting political climate surrounding these discussions, there also has been an ongoing shift in enrollment numbers that would guide the working group’s decision. Despite the lack of solid factual information and a lack of direction from the school board and top administrators, Doll still urged the working group to proceed with “whatever you can give the board in terms of helping them with this decision.”
The only problem is that, at this point, it’s hard to even know what issue the board is planning to decide.
Perhaps the most detrimental part of this process is the split in the working group, which only formalizes the division in a group that the district hoped would offer a unified consensus for action.
Given the unsettled status of state funding for public schools, it makes sense at this point for the school board to accept whatever report the working group can provide, thank group members for their service and then put the matter on hold, at least until the end of the legislative session. Then the board and the superintendent should do the job they were elected and hired to do and resist the temptation to seek political cover for potentially difficult decisions by turning them over to an appointed community group.