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News and notes from around town:
• Back in September 2009, we reported St. John the Evangelist Catholic church and school was contemplating a major expansion in the 1200 block of Kentucky Street. Well, that contemplation has now reached a new level.
The church has filed plans at City Hall for a $1.3 million multi-phased expansion that initially would prepare the Catholic school to start accepting eighth-graders for the 2013-2014 school year.
Father John Schmeidler said the expansion hasn’t yet received all the approvals it needs from the archdiocese, but Schmeidler is hopeful the project will get the go-ahead by late summer or early fall. Of course, the project also will need to win site plan approval from City Hall. (Maybe we can bill it as a race between church and state.)
The first phase of the project will allow for four new classrooms, a library, a multi-purpose room and various offices for the church and school. The expansion would attach to the south side of the existing school building.
The second phase of the project — a date for that expansion hasn’t yet been set — would include a gymnasium, a second kitchen that would allow for food to be served in the gymnasium, and a bigger gathering space and chapel area for the church. The second phase would connect the school expansion with the church building itself.
The expansion project is happening, in part, because Lawrence public schools have reconfigured their middle school/junior high schools to include sixth, seventh and eighth grades and have moved ninth-graders to the high school. That change made it more feasible for St. John’s to expand into middle school instruction.
The school will be adding seventh grade next school year and hopes to add eighth grade the following year. Schmeidler said each grade should add about 40 students to the school, which currently has about 250 students.
“It is a very exciting time,” Schmeidler said. “It will really enhance our school, which will in turn enhance our parish.”
• We’ll jump from one school to another. For several months now, I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about how City Commissioner Hugh Carter has been in discussions with several high-ranking Kansas University officials about ways to improve off-campus behavior of KU students.
Recently, Carter shared some details of those talks with me, and it appears the city and KU are close to reaching a deal that would at least knock several holes in the wall that sometimes separates KU from the city.
“There is a great deal of promise to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods near the university,” Carter told me. “From what I’ve seen, the university is ready to really put the resources toward this.”
Based on discussions, it appears there are three possible programs that could emerge from a new partnership between the city, the university and its two police forces. Here’s a look at the detail, which, of course, are subject to change as discussions progress:
— A last drink program. The city and the university would build a database of public offenses and alcohol-related accidents or medical incidents in an effort to identify drinking establishments that need to improve their serving practices. When a student is cited for an alcohol offense or is taken to the hospital for an alcohol-related issue, the system will attempt to gather information about where the student had his or her last drink of the evening. The database would compile that information and then city and university officials would be able to approach the bar owner (or I suppose the owner of the house, if it were a house party situation) with the information. I’m guessing the idea is the city and university would like to see if there are some establishments that could be doing a better job of helping their patrons know “when to say when.”
Carter said he doesn’t envision the program — at least initially — being punitive toward drinking establishments.
“We want to be proactive so we can educate those establishments about what is going on,” Carter said.
— Back on TRAC intervention program. KU and the city are exploring joining the national Back on TRAC program, which is an acronym for Treatment, Responsibility and Accountability on Campus. The program was founded at Colorado State University, and involves local enforcement partnering with university officials to identify substance-abusing students who could enter an intervention program.
Carter said the program would be a big step for both the city and the university because it would involve the city sharing data from its Municipal Court and arrest records with KU, so that the university can see when students are involved in substance-abuse issues off campus.
Carter said the city may require students who are seeking diversions through the Municipal Court system to enroll in the intervention program. The university also likely would have mechanisms to strongly encourage students who have substance abuse violations to enroll in the program.
But Carter said the university isn’t yet contemplating creating a system that would allow for on-campus punishments related to off-campus issues. Several universities have such a system in place — some even call the parents of the students — but Carter said the discussions with KU have not yet produced consensus on that approach.
— A good neighbor program. Carter said he is particularly excited about a proposal that would create a council or group of “student ambassadors” for each neighborhood near the university. The idea would be that the ambassador groups would conduct educational programs with student residents about how to appropriately interact with non-student residents of a neighborhood.
The ambassadors also would distribute their contact information to neighborhood residents, so that residents would have another person to call if problems arise. Carter said quite a few details still need to be worked out on what KU and city officials are tentatively labeling a good neighbor program. But he said other universities have created a 24-hour hotline for neighborhood residents to call for noise, trash and other nuisance issues. Some programs also include neighborhood specific trash policies, proactive walks where ambassadors look for potential problem areas, and specific policies on how to deal with properties that are repeat offenders.
Of course, the city has tried to deal with a lot of these neighborhood issues in the past. But I get the sense that City Hall leaders have a new optimism because of the level involvement top KU administrators have shown in this process. My understanding is that Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little has made improved relations with the city and the neighborhoods surrounding the campus a priority. Tim Caboni, vice chancellor for public affairs, has been heavily involved in the discussions with the city.
Carter said the next steps in the process involve the information technology folks of both the city and KU to begin figuring out some of the logistical details related to sharing more information. Carter said the plan is to have many of these programs in place for the next school year.
• In Wednesday’s Town Talk, I told you I would share some more results from the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce’s recent stakeholder interviews.
There’s no doubt these interview results are playing a role in the chamber asking the city and county to consider a revamped structure for economic development.
Even though many of the stakeholders were individuals deeply involved in the chamber or the business community, the results were still pretty negative as it relates to the job the chamber of commerce and others have done with economic development.
Atlas Advertising — the group that conducted 23 interviews with stakeholders in February — stated pretty bluntly its key finding: “Perceptions of economic development in Lawrence & Douglas County today are not favorable, due in large part to inconsistent, unfocused and sometimes controversial leadership.”
Atlas folks asked whether stakeholders thought economic development function ought to remain under the umbrella of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce or should be moved to some other organization. The stakeholders were evenly split on the issue, with 44 percent saying it should be removed and 44 percent saying it should stay. The remaining 12 percent was undecided.
The report’s authors also put together a word cloud that allows you to see at a glance some of the more common comments stakeholders made. When asked to describe economic development efforts, the word cloud showed results that included: “fractured,” “confused,” and “an assortment of non-accountable folks.”
To their credit, the chamber leaders I’ve talked with have said that they heard the message loud and clear, and that the information will be important for new chamber president and CEO Greg Williams to understand.
“This is the type of data that our new CEO needs and our partners at the city and county need so we can talk about how we want to change,” said Eileen Hawley, the chamber’s director of communications.
One item that wasn’t discussed as part of the stakeholder report is the chamber’s membership numbers. According to marketing information I saw related to the chamber’s search for a new CEO, the chamber now has a membership of about 850.
When I was covering the organization about a decade ago, membership numbers often were quoted in the 1,100 range.
It will be interesting to see what goals chambers leaders set for membership levels in the future.