Less than six months after gaining voter approval for a major school construction bond issue, the Lawrence school board — without additional voter approval or adequate opportunity for community comment — has agreed to more than double the number of new classrooms in Lawrence elementary schools.
Both the process and the rationale for the action at Monday night’s meeting again gnaws away at the public’s confidence in the district’s leadership and transparency.
The $92.5 million bond issue approved in April provided funding for 11 new elementary classrooms, mostly to replace portable classrooms still in use at various schools. Presumably , the people putting together the bond issue proposal had looked at enrollment projections and come up with a recommendation that they thought accounted for reasonable growth in the district.
Or maybe not. District officials appeared to be caught off guard by an increase of 1.8 percent or 95 elementary students this fall. So, less than a month after the beginning of the school year, administrators put together a plan to add another 12 new elementary classrooms along with six classroom “shells” that can be finished later at Sunset Hill School. The plan — funded using $600,000 in bond premium funds, $500,000 in bond interest and $2 million from the district’s capital outlay fund — was outlined to the public for the first time in a memo from Superintendent Rick Doll dated Sept. 5 and approved by the board just four days later.
That didn’t give the public — voters and taxpayers — a lot of time to examine the plan or ask questions such as: Why did the enrollment data on which the initial bond issue was based so widely miss the mark? How do we know that this year’s increase in enrollment is the beginning of a trend rather than a one-year aberration? Even if the district loses some economies of scale by postponing additional construction, would it be better off making sure it needs the additional space before agreeing to build it?
A couple of statements made by Doll at Monday’s meeting should raise additional concerns. “This is the right time to think about the number of elementary classrooms” the district needs, the superintendent said. On the contrary, the “right time” to think about that was before the district sought voter approval for a bond issue.
“One of the worst things we could do is conclude our bond construction process and not have enough room,” Doll told the board. That may be one of the worst things. Another would be to authorize spending that wasn’t really approved by voters to build classroom space that turns out not to be needed or perhaps not needed in the locations where it is being built.
Before the bond election, board members repeatedly voiced concern about being transparent with the public and not repeating the mistake of previous boards that altered spending strategies after bond issues were approved. The current board apparently thinks this situation is different and justified. Maybe it is, but the arrogant action the board took on Monday deserved more public discussion and opportunity for public input than four days notice, including a weekend, allowed.
Or could it be that the superintendent and his complicit board members don’t want the public to know too much about the thinking and goals of the board and how they impact the community?