The community should appreciate the time that members of a local working group have contributed to studying the consolidation of elementary schools in Lawrence, but it is looking less and less likely that the group will supply any meaningful guidance for the Lawrence school board.
With less than a month to go before its Jan. 31 deadline, the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group has yet to arrive at any solid recommendations. At their previous meeting, members of the group could agree on only one point: that regardless of whether any schools are consolidated, the district should propose a bond issue to raise more money for elementary schools. On Monday, their only point of consensus was that they would need more time to finish their job.
Two board members who attended Monday’s meeting said the request for more time probably would be approved. “I’d rather get something right than something rushed,” said Keith Diaz Moore.
With all due respect to those involved, it seems unlikely that giving this group more time is substantially going to impact the conclusions it reaches. A number of factors almost guaranteed this group would end up at an impasse. First, the working group was made up almost entirely of people who represented schools that likely would be closed and/or consolidated. They all had a constituency to represent or turf to protect.
Other factors also worked against them. It wasn’t until this week that the working group received projections for enrollment at the district’s 14 elementary schools — data that should figure heavily in their discussions. Interestingly, the projections prepared by an outside consulting firm, indicate that four of the six schools being considered for consolidation are expected to see enrollment increases over the next five years and two of the six are expected to be over capacity by the 2016-17 school year. How does that figure in with plans to close schools?
The group also has been hampered by mixed signals from the school board. Last year, the board approved specific instructions that the working group was to assume that the six schools in question would be reduced to three or four schools and should work to come up with the best scenario for that consolidation. After that charge was approved, however, four new board members took office, and the commitment to closing and consolidating schools appears to have softened.
The board can allow the working group more time to consider its recommendation, but it seems unlikely that more time will produce a more definitive recommendation. That means this issue will simply be back where it started: on the school board’s agenda.
It’s always a good idea to collect public input and try to involve stakeholders in key community decisions, but the factors mentioned above have made it difficult, if not impossible, for this working group to produce a solid recommendation. More time won’t help. The board should encourage the group to complete whatever work it can accomplish quickly and turn the issue back to the elected officials.