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Lawrence schools at a tipping point

The Lawrence school district is fast reaching the point where it needs to make some decisions about how to handle future growth.

That was a common thread running through a number of discussions at the school board meeting Monday night. Much of it was brought on by the sudden and unexpected enrollment growth the grade schools are seeing this year, especially on the city's west side.

This may be an uncomfortable conversation for some people in the district. After all, it was only a few years ago when Lawrence closed the Wakarusa and East Heights grade schools. And more recently, there was serious talk about closing and consolidating older schools on the east side to save money and make more efficient use of space.

But the public ultimately balked at that idea. People in Lawrence like their small neighborhood schools, and there seems to be no desire to shift toward so-called "mega schools" at the elementary level.

The result of those conversations was the $92.5 million bond issue that voters just approved in April.

Then came the first day of school this year, and the enrollment numbers really caught officials off guard - not the overall growth, so much, as the places where it occurred. But even looking at the district-wide numbers, it's clear the Lawrence district is close to reaching a tipping point where it will have to make some hard choices.

According to the latest projections from the district's consultant, RSP and Associates, total elementary enrollment has increased by 127 students over the past two years. Between now and the 2017-18 school year, they project another 233 students. That's 360 students additional over six years, or basically one entire average-size grade school.

And it's only a matter of time until those 360 elementary students move on to middle school and high school. Right now, South and Southwest middle schools, as well as Free State High School, are close to being filled to capacity.

Based on discussions across several agenda items at Monday's board meeting, here are some of the grand policy questions the district will soon have to grapple with:

Boundaries: Board president Rick Ingram says the district needs a clearer policy about studying, and possibly making adjustments to, attendance zone boundaries on an ongoing basis. While some buildings are expected to grow beyond their capacity over the next few years, others still have excess room. A nip here and a tuck there could prevent, or at least delay, the need for costly new construction in the future. But Superintendent Rick Doll says that will only get you so far, unless you want to draw boundaries that require small children to have to walk across 23rd Street or Iowa Street during rush hour.

"Mega schools": Nobody seems to like them, and it's nice living in a town with small, neighborhood schools where the teachers and parents all know each other and there is a real sense of community. Board vice president Shannon Kimball indicated she has no desire to move in that direction. But at what cost does the district stay with the small-school approach?

Build more small schools: It may have seemed unrelated at the time, but one of the other things the board did Monday was sell 2.31 acres of land to the state to make way for a South Lawrence Trafficway interchange at Bob Billings Parkway. That's right next door to Langston Hughes school, the largest, and soon-to-be over-capacity, grade school in the district.

The interchange is needed because of new development in that area that is already being planned, and some people expect the interchange itself will spur even more new development west of the SLT. Add to that the SLT extension about to be built on the southeast side, which no doubt will spur even more commercial and residential development, and you have the makings of two large, new growth areas.

If the idea of "mega schools" is off the table, at some point the district has to look at building at least a couple new grade schools, and probably another middle school as well.

Closer planning: Board member Keith Diaz Moore - who surely set a long-distance record for telecommuting to a board meeting because he was took part via Skype while on sabbatical in Sweden - suggested the district might be overreacting to a one-time spike in enrollment. Go ahead and build the new rooms the district knows it needs right now, he suggested, but hold off on the others until we see some more reliable long-term enrollment trends.

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