Lawrence school district to plan school mergers

Lane Eisenhart is a realist when it comes to the future of her neighborhood’s beloved elementary, New York School.

She’d like to see it remain open, or perhaps even expanded, as the Lawrence school district weighs options for consolidating schools — moves intended to help grapple with declining state revenue while improving efficiency and preserving or even improving student achievement.

She knows New York is in the crosshairs and considers it understandable.

“I can see the need for consolidation — the budget cuts and all that,” said Eisenhart, mother of a current fourth-grader and an incoming kindergartner. “I realize it’s a very small school and not very efficient.

“I see consolidation as a reality, and I say it will happen. But I could be happiest in the outcome if I could be part of the process.”

Just what role folks like Eisenhart might play in consolidation decisions will start taking shape Monday night, as members of the Lawrence school board meet at 7 p.m. at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive.

Board members already have embraced an appointed task force’s recommendation that six elementaries — Cordley, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill schools — should be considered for consolidation. Within three to five years, the task force said, the list of remaining schools should be reduced to three or four, using expected proceeds from a bond issue to finance necessary additions, expansions or new construction.

Now it’s time for board members to chart a course for such work, and they’ll have until July 1 before four of their seven members — including the two co-chairmen of the 24-member Lawrence Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force — leave office.

Vanessa Sanburn, who still has two years remaining on her board term, followed election results April 5 and understands the importance of ensuring that the public has a real say in helping shape the implementation of consolidation.

“All four candidates who won campaigned on a similar idea, that public input is important in the consolidation process,” Sanburn said. “If we were to ignore that idea, or move forward without taking seriously the recommendations from the task force that strongly encourage us to get the community members and stakeholders involved, it wouldn’t work.”

Yet Sanburn is careful to note that the input should be directed to how consolidation should occur, not whether it should occur at all. The task force studied the issue for eight months and came up with a firm recommendation: Consolidate schools.

“There’s a lot at stake,” said Sanburn, a graduate student at Kansas University. “Realistically, with the budget constraints we’re operating under, if the consolidation plan doesn’t move forward it’s possible that closures will be discussed.

“It’s not like if the bond issue doesn’t pass, we’re going to be able to keep everything the same. Change has to happen. It’s just a matter of figuring out what’s the best, positive change for the community.”

Rick Ingram, the top vote-getter in the April 5 election, understands the task force’s recommendation. But he’s careful to point out that it came from the task force, not the broader public that would be relied upon to approve the implementation of consolidation through a bond issue.

“I think if consolidation truly comes from the community, and the community can support it, then that’s consistent with the idea of community voice,” said Ingram, a professor of psychology at KU. “It comes down to the input of the community: You have to look at, what does consolidation really mean? Does it mean moving entire communities of kids together? If that’s the kind of thing, then maybe the community does support it. If it means something else, then I don’t know.”

One thing is clear, he said: “If the community doesn’t support it, it’s not going to happen. You have to listen to your constituents.”