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Lawrence school board asked to weigh real estate options

The Lawrence school district owns quite a bit of undeveloped real estate in town, some of which may be needed in the near future for new elementary or middle schools.

That was one of the messages Monday afternoon as the board — including its two new members, Adina Morse and Kristie Adair — engaged with administrators in a "goal-setting" workshop. No decisions were made about any of the properties, but it's an issue the board is likely to address, maybe multiple times, in the coming year or two.

The property likely to get the most attention in the near future is a 34-acre tract near 15th and George Williams Way, just south of Langston Hughes school.

It's also adjacent to a planned new interchange with the South Lawrence Trafficway, and directly abuts the site of upcoming residential and commercial developments known as Langston Heights and Langston Commons which will add an estimated 229 residential housing units to the area.

Superintendent Rick Doll told board members Monday that they need to think about how they'd like to use that property. Some of the obvious options on the list include expanding Langston Hughes, which is already close to capacity; building a new elementary school; or building a new middle school.

"It's not uncommon, especially in suburban areas, for elementary schools to sit side by side," Doll said. It's basically a matter of drawing attendance zones around them.

Not far from the Langston-area property, the school district also owns a 50-acre tract on the west side of the trafficway. Doll said the new interchange is likely to spur even more development on that end of town, and that parcel may also be needed for future expansion.

On the southeast end of town, the district owns a 76-acre tract south of 23rd Street, near the spot where the new extension of the SLT will connect with Kansas Highway 10.

Doll noted the district owns two small parcels of land that probably won't ever be needed for any kind of expansion.

One of those, oddly enough, is a small Civil War-era cemetery north of Interstate 70, just east of Michigan Street. Somehow, the district acquired it during the massive school consolidation process in the 1960s when the old Riverside district was merged into Lawrence.

Doll said the cemetery is only accessible by walking through private property in the residential area that has built up next to it. Neighbors evidently are fond of it and use it as a walking trail. Doll suggested it might be a good idea to deed that property over to the neighborhood or some other organization.

Finally, he said, the district owns one parcel on a residential block along 14th Street, just north of Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. At one time, he said, it was thought the school might want a full football stadium and oval track that would stretch across 14th Street. But he said city officials are not keen on the idea of closing the street, and so that plan is unlikely ever to come to fruition.

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Departing assistant superintendent to work for Fort Hays State

Adam Holden is going back to work for Fort Hays State University after his resignation as assistant superintendent in the Lawrence school district takes effect July 1, although he plans to continue living in the Lawrence area.

Holden said this week he will become chair of the Department of Teacher Education at FHSU's College of Education and Technology. While he will have to be on the western Kansas campus from time to time, he said he and his family intend to continue living in Lawrence for the time being.

"The department has both on-campus and virtual students and offers courses in both," Holden said.

Holden had been an assistant professor at FHSU before he was hired in April 2012 as assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the Lawrence school district. At that time, he succeeded Kim Bodensteiner, who had been the district’s chief academic officer since 2007.

Holden announced in May that he would resign his job in Lawrence effective June 30, citing personal and family considerations.

The announcement came shortly after the district decided to reorganize the central office administration, which involved splitting that job into two positions: an assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, which will be filled by Angelique Kobler; and a newly created position of assistant superintendent for technology and educational programs, which will be filled by Jerri Kemble.

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Suggested readings about the Common Core controversy, pro and con

There was plenty of vitriol and hyperbole going around the statehouse in the final few days of the session as conservatives made a last-minute attempt to block any public funds from being used to implement the Common Core standards in reading and math, and to prevent the State Board of Education from adopting the Next Generation Science Standards.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, Republican from Shawnee, called Common Core a "dramatic centralization of authority over the nation's traditionally decentralized K-12 schools." And Rep. Allan Rothlisberg, a Geary County Republican, compared them to a Marxist-like effort at central government command and control of education.

That kind of rhetoric, in turn, prompted Rep. Julie Menghini, a Pittsburg Democrat, to label the anti-Common Core legislators paranoid.

“I’ve got an inside tip: invest in tinfoil,” Menghini was quoted as saying in the Topeka Capital-Journal, referring to the common "tinfoil hat" shorthand for paranoia and conspiracy theory. Thereafter, outside observers could follow much of the Kansas legislative debate on Twitter under the hashtag, #tinfoil, an area of conversation usually reserved for sports maniacs who think the referees or umpires are conspiring against their team.

It's probably safe to say, however, that as with most public policy debates, neither side of the Common Core debate has a monopoly on reason and enlightenment; nor is the other side completely deluded.

There are, in fact, intelligent arguments being made on both sides. So for those interested in doing a little more reading on the subject, here is a short list of better (and more easily digestible) discussions.

First, some pro-Common Core articles:

Can Academic Standards Boost Literacy and Close the Achievement Gap? A Brookings Institution paper by Ron Haskins, Richard Murnane, Isabel V. Sawhill and Catherine Snow. This offers a fairly objective description of how the Common Core standards came into being, and why.

BRT Letter to Republican National Committee Supporting Common Core State Standards, a letter by John Engler, former Republican governor of Michigan and now president of the Business Roundtable, arguing that the standards, "are critical to building and maintaining an American workforce that can compete in the global economy."

Myth v. Fact: Taking on the Tallest Tales about Common Core State Standards, a blog post from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, taking on some of the more extreme criticisms of Common Core.

And from some skeptics ...

Dispatches from a Nervous Common Core Observer: by Michael McShane of the American Enterprise Institute. This is an ongoing 10-part blog series in which McShane, a research fellow at the institute, lays out some well-reasoned concerns about the loss of local control and homogenization of education, as well as the challenges Common Core poses to textbook publishers and the school administrators who select and buy them.

The State of State Standards—and the Common Core—in 2010. This is a review by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that attempts to answer the question: Are the Common Core standards better than the old standards? Answer: Yes or no, depending on where you live. It includes links to lots of other articles both for and against the Common Core standards.

Morning Bell: Join the Fight Against Common Core, a blog post by Lindsey Burke, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. This article actually makes more use of platitudes and bumper-sticker slogans than evidence or argumentation. But it does put the debate into context as a competition for the "school choice" movement (think vouchers, charter schools, etc.) vs. greater investment in traditional public schools.

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School bond issues have been popular in recent Kansas elections

Lawrence wasn't the only school district in Kansas to pass a bond issue Tuesday night, and the 72 percent margin by which it passed wasn't the widest by any means. In fact, school bond elections appear to have been popular with voters in the last several months.

According to a story posted by the Salina Journal, bond proposals also passed this week in the McPherson and Goessel school districts by wider margins than the one seen in Lawrence.

In the McPherson district, which has about 2,300 full-time-equivalent students, voters approved $13.25 million in new bonds by a margin of 81 percent to 19 percent.

And in the tiny Goessel district, with about 257 FTE students, a $3.3 million bond proposal passed with 92 percent of the vote (337 to 29).

But at least one bond proposal did fail narrowly Tuesday night. In the Ellsworth school district, voters rejected a $4.8 million proposal, 47 percent to 53 percent.

A few theories immediately pop to mind that might explain this. One is that spring municipal elections produce extremely low turnout, so the returns only show the sentiments of the most ardent, committed voters. It may be easier to get people to turn out in droves to vote for something rather than against it.

Another is that school boards include some politically savvy people who only put a bond proposal on the ballot when they are fairly confident it has public support.

But another theory — and one that seemed to be popular among the Yes for Lawrence crowd Tuesday night — is that Kansas voters are much more willing than their elected representatives in Topeka are to invest tax dollars in public schools.

That was the message from Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, and co-chair of Yes for Lawrence, when he gave an impromptu victory speech at an election watch party downtown Tuesday night.

"Sandy and I have had so much fun being involved in this," Davis said, referring to the committee's other co-chair, Republican Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger of Lawrence. "We are dealing with that realm of politics over in Topeka, which is not always uplifting."

It's also interesting to note that just over a year ago, in January 2012, voters in two Johnson County school districts, Blue Valley and Gardner Edgerton, approved large local bond issues.

In Blue Valley — a rapidly growing district where the school board likes to keep bonding authority in the bank, on the assumption they're going to need it within the next 10 years or so for another new building — voters passed a $271 million bond issue with 62 percent of the vote.

And in Gardner Edgerton, a much smaller district with about 5,000 students, voters OK'd a $72.8 million bond issue with 54 percent of the vote.

Those are noteworthy because those districts also are home to some of the most conservative lawmakers in the Kansas Legislature.

Blue Valley's legislative delegation includes House Speaker Ray Merrick, as well as Reps. Scott Schwab and Marvin Kleeb, among others.

Schwab is a sponsor of a bill mandating certain social studies lessons during Celebrate Freedom Week. Kleeb is the House Commerce Committee chairman who recently agreed to hold off on a bill limiting collective bargaining rights for teachers.

Gardner Edgerton's delegation, meanwhile, includes Sen. Julia Lynn, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee which also heard a number of bills this year targeting teachers' unions.

So far, Kansas lawmakers are not talking about making any further cuts to K-12 funding. But neither are they talking much about complying with a district court order in Gannon vs. Kansas to restore funding back to levels agreed to in the Kansas Supreme Court's 2006 Montoy school finance decision, at least not while the Gannon case is still on appeal before the Court.

Still, according to the Salina Journal, concern about the possibility of future cuts in state funding for education generally was a motivation for districts in north-central Kansas to seek bonds that would put more money into their own local schools.

All of which may reinforce the theory that the voters who turn out for off-cycle school bond elections are a different crowd of people from the ones who turn out for legislative elections in November.

Or it could point to another truism about American politics. Like the voters who say they distrust Congress but keep re-electing their own congressman, maybe the lesson here is that Kansas voters strongly support their own school districts, but distrust everyone else's.

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ALEC-based charter school bill getting second chance

Lawrence schools are on spring break this week, a fact that sparked some fear in the newsroom that there wouldn't be much education news for a few days. But Kansas lawmakers appear to be picking up the slack.

Specifically, the Kansas Senate Education Committee worked through a pile of bills Monday, including one that would create new opportunities for establishing charter schools in Kansas.

Senate Bill 196, the Kansas Public Charter School Act, is nearly identical to a bill that the House Education Committee rejected last week. It's based on model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

ALEC is a conservative, free-market-oriented organization made up of legislators, corporations and foundations. It produces model legislation usually geared toward lowering taxes and reducing government regulation that has been introduced in statehouses around the country.

For those who aren't familiar with charter schools, they are a special type of school, usually set up within a public school district but operated independently, either by a private company, nonprofit organization or some other public entity. Most are exempt from some laws or regulations that govern traditional public schools.

Charter schools have been a favorite topic of conservatives for several years, for several reasons. Advocates tend to like the idea of injecting free-market competition into the public school system, breaking up what they see as a government monopoly on education funding. Charter schools also provide a testing ground for a fundamental free-market principle: the idea that removing the shackles of government regulations - including things like collective bargaining for teachers - will unleash innovative thinking and creative ideas that will improve education overall.

Critics, on the other hand, view charter schools skeptically. They say there is little evidence to suggest the schools perform any better than traditional schools when they deal with comparable student populations. And they fear that the charter school movement is really aimed at busting teachers' unions and channeling public education dollars to what are essentially private schools.

To date, Kansas has had a fairly limited charter school law. Public school districts are the only entities that can authorize a charter school. Many districts, including the ones in Lawrence and Topeka, have authorized their own. But outside organizations have to petition their local district and get permission to open one. And even then, the State Board of Education has the final say on approving the charters.

SB 196 would open up the process by giving the Kansas Board of Regents, cities and counties and the governing board of any public or private post-secondary institution the power to authorize a public charter school.

The State Board of Education would still have the final word in granting a charter, but the bill would greatly limit the board's discretion in making that decision.

The nugget of the bill, though, lies in two other key provisions.

One would provide a 100 percent tax credit for private contributions to a public charter school. That means that for every dollar donated to a charter school, the state general fund would have one less dollar with which to fund education and other state services.

The other is an almost blanket exemption from any state laws or regulations governing public schools, except those related to public health and safety, civil rights and nondiscrimination and handicapped accessibility. There would be no requirement for the charter schools to recognize teachers' unions.

Last week, an almost identical bill failed to win passage in the House Education Committee. But the Senate Education Committee is now working on its own version. The Senate panel was expected to vote on the bill Monday, but that vote has been delayed until Tuesday.

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    Free State High School student chosen for Senate Youth Program and scholarship

    Logan Brown, a junior at Free State High School, is one of two students in Kansas selected to receive a $5,000 scholarship and serve as a delegate to the annual United States Senate Youth Program, scheduled for March 9-16 in Washington.

    The program, established in 1962, brings together two students from each state, Washington, D.C., and the Department of Defense school system for a weeklong intensive study of the federal government and its leaders. Delegates are chosen by the chief education officer of each state from nominations submitted by teachers and principals.

    Brown, 17, is the daughter of M.T. and Deanna Brown. She is active in the Kansas Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program. She is also active in debate and forensics, the National Honor Society, and DECA, an international business and marketing education association. She says she hopes to pursue a law degree and enter politics.

    Logan Brown

    Logan Brown by Alma Bahman

    While in Washington, Brown and other other delegates delegates will meet the president, a Supreme Court justice, senators and congressional staff, leaders of cabinet agencies, foreign diplomats and members of the national news media.

    The scholarships, as well as the cost of the trip, are funded entirely by the Hearst Foundations. Students who receive the scholarships are encouraged to continue coursework in government, history and public affairs.

    Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker designated Brown, along with Ami Purohit of Lenexa as this year's delegates. Their selections were announced by U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran.

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    Lawrence schools concerned about their own ‘fiscal cliff’

    Concerns about the possibility of drastic budget cuts in the not-too-distant future are weighing heavily on the Lawrence Board of Education, but board president Vanessa Sanburn says she is still committed to seeking voter approval of a large bond issue in the spring.

    "I believe that we owe it to the students and staff in Lawrence Public schools to improve our facilities and bring them up to 21st century standards to enhance learning, regardless of the state budget forecast," Sanburn said in an email Tuesday. "These facilities will bring enhancements to the schools that last for future generations."

    Strictly speaking, there is no connection between the "general fund" aid that Lawrence gets from the state and the district's ability to repay bonds. Local districts in Kansas have authority to levy separate taxes for bond and interest payments, and that money flows into a completely different pot from the one that pays for day-to-day operations.

    Nevertheless, a few board members expressed concern Monday night about what you might call the "optics" of a situation that could occur, where the district is spending millions of dollars to upgrade and expand school facilities while, at the same time, making deep cuts in school programs.

    The cause of much of that concern traces back to the multibillion-dollar tax cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature approved this year. Official projections show those will cost the state about a billion dollars over the next year and a half. And since K-12 education makes up roughly half the state general fund budget, many people are anticipating deep and possibly permanent cuts in school funding.

    For his part, Brownback remains confident the tax cuts will spur job creation and economic growth that, in turn, will result in tax revenues flowing back to the state, at least partially offsetting the cost of the tax cuts. In the meantime, he has vowed to "protect" education funding, which some people point out is not exactly the same as vowing "not to cut" education funding.

    Meanwhile, the clouds looming on the fiscal horizon are coloring all kinds of discussions at the school board in addition to plans for the upcoming bond issue.

    Also during Monday night's meeting, the board approved a contract with Gallup, a human resources consulting firm, to use its online tool TeacherInsight that's intended to improve the district's recruitment, interviewing and hiring of new teachers.

    But district staff recommended only a one-year contract, instead of the original idea of three years. Superintendent Rick Doll said that was mainly because of concerns the district may soon have to go into budget-cutting mode again, and he would rather not get into a long-term contract that may ultimately have to be cut anyway.

    Another indication of the board's concerns came during a discussion about the role of the district's Financial Advisory Council. That's a group the board formed last year, in the wake of the last round of budget slashing, to help advise the board about financial options and best management practices.

    The point of the discussion was to get a clearer idea of what the board wants from that council and how the council is supposed to communicate its ideas with the board. But the overall tone was mainly about the looming fiscal challenges — or at least the board's perception of one.

    As a few board members said, though, it would be preferable to have some kind of plan in place before any financial storm comes than to wait and be forced into making hasty decisions.

    The public may get a clearer idea of how far districts will have to cut in the next year, if they have to cut at all, when Brownback delivers his next budget message to the Legislature in January.


    Peter Hancock can be reached at 832-7259, or by email: phancock@ljworld.com.

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