Support sought for consolidating elementary schools in Lawrence

As members of the Lawrence school board continue making plans to form a community-minded process for consolidating elementary schools during the next several years, they’re finding support from folks who some may see as unlikely advocates.

Even people from one of the schools targeted say they want to remain on the consolidation list, even after several members of the Lawrence school board suggested taking their building — Pinckney School — off the list of six potential candidates.

“We don’t want to be out there as the school that is left out … and becomes the next (closure) target,” said Andrew Lees, who lives in Old West Lawrence.

Adds David Unekis: “We don’t want to be the next tiny school that every year is sweating this out.”

Such support is considered key to board members as they pursue the most divisive and potentially enduring recommendation from the Lawrence Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force: Consolidate six elementary schools into four or possibly three schools within three to five years.

To turn the recommendation into reality, the board would need to propose and win approval for a bond issue that would be designed to address the needs of all elementary schools in town, whether that’s by adding new classrooms, expanding libraries or even building entirely new schools.

And to get to that point, board members agree that they’d need to secure “buy in” from the community, especially in relation to the families and teachers and administrators and neighborhood residents who would be most affected by consolidations.

That would be the folks close to the six schools themselves: Cordley, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill.

From there, the goal would be to include enough upgrades elsewhere to encourage voters throughout the district to approve a bond issue, possibly in November 2012. If approved, the thinking goes, the district could reduce excess capacity in schools, cut operational costs, eliminate portables, and open new or expanded schools in older neighborhoods.

All without increasing property taxes.

“We could float a $120 million bond in three years and, assuming no growth in the valuation of our district, it would keep taxes the same,” said Scott Morgan, a board member who served as co-chairman of the task force. “We won’t go anywhere near that number, and still do everything that needs to be done. We have a lot of debt going away. We can do what’s right and still lower taxes. It’s a rare meeting. …

“This is the one chance we have, this one brief moment, to do this is a way that actually brings the community together instead of tearing it apart. If we blink at this one, then it won’t come back again for a long, long time.”

In February, after eight months of studying data and discussing community values, task force members generally supported a consolidation plan that would start with the six schools and end up with four. Further, the bulk of task force discussion had focused on limiting the work to a pair of consolidations:

• In central Lawrence, Hillcrest and Sunset Hill would be combined.

• In eastern Lawrence, Kennedy and New York would be combined.

Board members plan to meet Monday to discuss ways to appoint another group or groups — similar to the task force — to tackle the many issues expected to be connected with pursuing school consolidation, such as budget realities, site conditions, construction costs, approaches to sustainability and social equity, community focus and overall plans for programs such as English as a Second Language. Other issues, including effects on neighborhood property values, also have been discussed.

Morgan, who leaves office in July, advocates giving the board’s eventual appointees as much direction as possible. The goal shouldn’t be to discuss whether to pursue consolidation, he said, but instead to figure out how.

“There will be two fewer schools at the end of this process,” Morgan said. “That’s the decision the community (reached) in the recommendation through the task force.”

Added Rich Minder, board president and the task force’s other co-chairman: “The ‘how’ is what we’re asking the community to do.”

Both Minder and Morgan joined Mary Loveland during last week’s board meeting in suggesting that Pinckney not be among schools considered for consolidation. The remaining schools appear to make much more sense, they said, given their locations, designs or physical conditions.

But Bob Byers, a board member who has two years remaining on his term, wants to stay true to the task force recommendation: Keep Pinckney in the mix, because that’s what the task force recommended.

Whatever group ends up being appointed this time around would have the opportunity to decide whether Pinckney — or, for that matter, any of the others schools on the list — should be consolidated.

“Let them struggle with it,” Byers said.

Minder, who leaves office July 1, wants to put together a process that would be expected to lead to an effective consideration of consolidation as a positive task. That’s why he started the discussion last week, and looks to continue it Monday night, when the board meets at 7 p.m. at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive.

While the direction isn’t yet set, Minder knows what he doesn’t want.

“My concern is that the next board is left with what amounts to a political mess, and the community doesn’t get anywhere,” Minder said.