In the end, a working group tasked with finding ways to close Lawrence elementary schools decided on just three points: a bond is needed, the district has to address the staffing deficiencies in its elementary schools, and building improvements that eliminate portable classrooms are a must.
Last fall, the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Group was charged with the task of recommending 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.
When the group met for the last time Monday night, no one recommended closing any schools. Instead the 28 members split into two camps, each with their own recommendation that would be passed onto the school board.
Thirteen members voted for a recommendation that pushed for a bond issue that would keep all 14 elementary schools open, cover deferred maintenance projects, eliminate portable classrooms and add capacity for full-day kindergarten.
Eleven members supported a recommendation that kept closing schools as a valid option and urged the board to develop a long-term vision that would address English as a Second Language services, school boundaries and facility upgrades.
Two members from the working group abstained from voting.
Much of Monday’s meeting was an attempt to extract where the two recommendations overlapped, which will be highlighted in a cover letter sent to the board later this week. But even reaching that common ground was a struggle as members discussed the finer points.
“It would at least be nice to agree on something,” New York representative Josh Davis said while pushing for the group to keep searching for commonalities.
That cover letter and the two recommendations officially will be handed over to the school board at its Feb. 27 meeting.
Fueled by emotion and at times contentious, the process wasn’t an easy one. But the members coming out of Monday’s meeting said they were glad they participated in it.
“It was long and difficult. But at the end it was worth it,” said Chris Lempa, the community representative for New York. “And in some ways it is just the beginning.”
As the working group studied several proposals for closing down schools, Sunset Hill parent Daisy Wakefield said she realized there were no clear solutions.
“If you move one piece, seven other pieces move as well,” she said. “People on the outside, including us, didn’t realize that. You go through this process and you realize how much everything is interwoven, and nothing is easy.”
The working group took a major turn last week when members from Pinckney announced that the majority of the school board no longer backed the charge to consolidate schools. For some in the group, such as Kennedy parent Dawn Shew, that was a hard thing to hear after months of work. Even still, she said the process was a worthy one.
“It is worth it to have your voice heard in the community,” Shew said. “We may not see the efforts of the work we did next year or in the next five years, but in the end I don’t think it will disappear. And that is worth it.”
In his closing comments to the working group, Superintendent Rick Doll hinted at the changing context of the group’s charge. Among those changes were data on school enrollment, new school board members and an improving financial situation.
“Your task under normal situations was very, very difficult. And then in addition to that stuff started shifting underneath you as you were working on your charge,” Doll said. “I certainly recognize you were given a difficult task.”
He also used his remarks to urge the members to stay involved.
“That last thing I leave with you is that we can do better and now is the time to do better,” Doll said. “We are going to be asking the community to help us do better, and you are going to have to help us with that.”