School consolidation options due from task force next month

Finance advisory group on way

Members of the Lawrence school board also agreed Monday to form a new Finance Advisory Committee, a volunteer group intended to help board members and district administrators make sense of budget challenges and opportunities.

Board members intend to appoint the five-member committee next month. An application form is expected to be posted soon on the district’s website,

At least one member of the Lawrence school board wouldn’t mind receiving an incomplete assignment from an advisory board struggling to recommend ways to consolidate elementary schools.

Instead of producing a document outlining a single course of action — identifying which two or three schools should close, then how to send displaced students into other existing, expanded or yet-to-be-built schools during the next two years — members of the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group should feel free to come up with a range of options for board members to consider.

That’s Randy Masten’s plan, anyway: Advisers should advise, no matter what form such advice might take. Then let the politicians decide.

“Apply your best logic,” Masten said, addressing an informal gathering of working group members Monday night atop the steps outside district headquarters. “Don’t worry about making us happy. Happy isn’t part of the equation. Give us something we can work with.”

Masten’s impromptu pep talk for about 10 members of the working group came after the board’s regular meeting, one in which the board agreed to give the report more time to complete its report.

The group now has another two weeks — until Feb. 15 — to produce its recommendations for consolidation, a task assigned to the group’s more than 30 volunteers this past summer. Members have met every two weeks since September, but several admit that they have yet to approach any sort of consensus on anything of substance: not which consolidation scenarios they should support, nor how they might determine which scenarios they should support, nor which scenarios they should send to consultants for further study, a precursor to deciding which ones they might support.

The group hadn’t even settled on how much extra time to ask for.

“You’re not near a conclusion at all,” said Bob Byers, a board member who attended last week’s group meeting as an observer.

Byers made his observation during Monday night’s board meeting, as group representatives from Cordley, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill — the six schools identified as consolidation candidates by an earlier advisory group — took turns explaining why they needed more time.

Board members, in turn, granted the extension while offering their own thoughts. Rick Ingram conceded that an additional two weeks would not be unreasonable, provided that group members thought they could make progress.

That’s a big if.

“I see no evidence that you’re on the verge of consensus,” said Ingram, who has attended all nine working meetings of the group.

Byers encouraged the group to come up with something concrete, some sort of recommendation to help the board as it faces continued financial uncertainty from the state. Byers was one of three current board members who were on the previous board that formed the working group, appointed its members and charged it with drawing up a plan for consolidating schools.

“A decision is going to be made, with your recommendation or without it,” Byers said. “Not to put pressure on you, (but) it’s not a threat. It’s just the reality that we’re in. I want to make sure you understand that.”

Dawn Shew, a representative from Kennedy on the working group, assured board members that the work would continue. All of the six school’s representatives have forwarded plans for consideration by the larger group, set to be discussed again during the group’s meeting next week.

And even though members haven’t even discussed voting, she said, members are emotionally invested in the process.

“I think you’ll get good rationale from the group,” Shew said. “Even if we don’t all agree, we definitely have thought through the issues.”

The group also gained a new member. Board members appointed Shannon Criss to serve as a representative of Hillcrest, replacing Donna Osness, who left the advisory group for personal reasons.

Criss, who has a daughter in fifth grade at Hillcrest, is an associate professor of architecture, design and planning at Kansas University.

Last month, two others joined the group as representatives of Kennedy: Shonda Anderson and Samantha Cady replaced Stella Murphy and Amy Scrivner, who had departed because of personal committments.