New building to combine Kennedy, N.Y. schools would face a complicated path

In this 2010 file photo, students leave New York School in Lawrence. A school consolidation proposal would see Kennedy School and New York School closed, and its students enrolled together in a new school.

Scenarios for school consolidation

Here are four scenarios for school consolidation set to be discussed Monday evening by the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group, which meets at 7 p.m. at Lawrence school district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive:

• Representatives from Hillcrest School, 1045 Hilltop Drive, suggest expanding Hillcrest so it could accept students from Sunset Hill School, 901 Schwarz Road. Other Sunset Hill students would go to Quail Run School, 1130 Inverness Drive.

• Representatives from Sunset Hill propose expanding Sunset Hill so that it could handle up to 100 Hillcrest students, plus some others from Sunflower School. Closing would be Pinckney School, 810 W. Sixth St., with its students moving to Hillcrest.

• Representatives from Kennedy School, 1605 Davis Road, call for closing both Kennedy and New York School, 936 N.Y., with the bulk of their students attending a new school built at or adjacent to the former East Heights School, 1430 Haskell Ave. Also proposed: Combine Hillcrest and Sunset Hill at the Sunset Hill site, either in an expanded or new building.

• Representatives from Pinckney also suggest combining Hillcrest and Sunset Hill at an expanded Sunset Hill, and combining Kennedy and New York in a new building at an expanded East Heights location. An alternative: New York would close, sending its students to Pinckney and Kennedy; Kennedy’s early-childhood program would shift either to New York or Hillcrest.

(Note: Representatives from Cordley and New York schools have not submitted proposals for group consideration.)

Folks representing Kennedy School have an idea for consolidating schools, taking care of kids and keeping property taxes level.

All it would take is closing their school, closing New York School, and moving the bulk of the students into a new school — one that likely would be best suited for land that would be exchanged with the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, stretch into some city-owned property nearby and perhaps include acquisition of a couple of private residences and their lots at the southeast corner of 15th Street and Haskell Avenue.

All with anticipated voter approval of a bond issue.

“It’s tough to make decisions based on what might happen,” concedes Tim Laurent, who has a child at Kennedy and serves as a representative on the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group. “I don’t know that this is the answer … but this is what we thought would be best for the kids.”

The complicated scenario is among four scheduled to be discussed Monday night by members of the working group, an advisory panel charged by the Lawrence school board to recommend a plan for reducing a list of six elementary schools to either three or four within the next couple of years. The plan is due to the board by the end of January.

And while the concept of closing two schools while building a new one isn’t new — it received attention a year ago during meetings of the Lawrence Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force, which worked to balance elementary needs against the district’s financial restraints — the source of support for the latest idea is new.

Laurent and other group representatives from the Kennedy community are the ones suggesting that the board close their school to make way for a new, larger one that would be able to provide long-term security and resources and educational opportunities for their kids and those who would enroll in the decades ahead.

As the district plans for a future where needs continue to mount and budgets are expected to shrink, the “Kennedy Proposal” represents a significant achievement and encouraging step forward, said Mark Bradford, board president.

“It’s in the right direction,” Bradford said.

Looking ahead

Just where such plans might lead — and precisely what site, if any, might be identified — for a proposed new school serving the Kennedy and New York communities remains undetermined. Two possibilities are behind the proposal:

• Raze the existing East Heights building, at the northeast corner of 15th and Haskell, and build a new one there. An architect already has deemed the site possible, but far from optimal. Members of the working group have noted that 4.5-acre site would be relatively small in comparison to those for other “three-section” schools in the district, which are on sites ranging from eight to 12 acres. Without more space, traffic and parking problems could continue. Equity issues could surface if a playground were too small or gym size compromised. Expanding the site would mean pushing into private property to the north, east or both.

• Acquire property southeast of 15th and Haskell, where up to 12 acres could be assembled for a new school that would provide enough room for about 415 students, or 23 per class. The new school would include the district’s Early Childhood Program, an existing preschool for at-risk kids at Kennedy, 1605 Davis Road.

The second option would take some doing, beginning with a likely “land swap” with the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, which owns property at 1520 Haskell Ave. that is now used for the club’s Teen Center.

As envisioned, the swap — in its most generic terms — would involve the district giving up its ownership of the East Heights building and site, which already is being leased by the club and used for an after-school center that serves students from multiple elementary schools. The district would get the Teen Center building and site, and possibly pursue potential use of a portion of Edgewood Park, which is immediately west of the city’s nearby East Lawrence Recreation Center, 1245 E. 15th St.

“If it’s what makes the most sense and best serves kids, we should be flexible to see if we could make it happen,” said Hugh Carter, a Lawrence city commissioner and member of the club’s board of directors. “But there’s a long way to go.”

‘I’m not interested’

Located between the Teen Center and the park, however, is private green space owned by David Frayer, a professor of anthropology at Kansas University. He’s lived at 1500 Haskell Ave. in a 105-year-old home for more than 20 years, and he isn’t at all willing to entertain parting with any or all of his house, his barn or his property.

His 5-acre homestead isn’t going anywhere or to anyone else anytime soon, he said, no matter what financial challenges, capacity concerns, equity goals or long-term plans the district might be dealing with.

“I’m not interested in selling,” said Frayer, who helps mow the lawn of a home next door, a smaller property also discussed preliminarily by the Kennedy group as a potential acquisition target. “I’m not sympathetic to it, and I like my place. I don’t know what they can do to force me out, but it’d be a hassle.”

The folks behind the Kennedy Proposal know their plan wouldn’t be easy, no matter where a new school would be envisioned. Long before the concept would require architectural plans or land acquisition or boundary adjustments or public financing or anything else, the proposal first would need to:

• Become part of the overall recommendation from the entire working group.

• Earn endorsement from the school board.

• Be included in a larger bond issue intended to repair, renovate and expand remaining elementary schools throughout the district — a bond issue that would be expected to hold property taxes steady or perhaps enable a decrease, thanks to earlier school bonds going off the books during the next several years.

“It’s a fresh idea,” said Al Hack, president of the board for the Boys and Girls Club.

“They’re certainly thinking outside the box here,” said Carter, his colleague and city commissioner.

“It’s not: ‘Oh, we’re going down the wrong path.’ It’s not like that at all,” said Bradford, president of the school board. “It sounds encouraging and promising, the kind of concept they’re talking about.”

First things first

The Kennedy Proposal, if nothing else, offers a starting point for the working group, Laurent said. Group members have met six times since early September but have yet to formally discuss a specific plan that would accommodate consolidation.

After Monday night, the group will have four scheduled meetings left.

“We wanted to put something out there so we could start discussing scenarios,” said Laurent, whose wife and two oldest children attended Kennedy, and whose youngest daughter is a fourth-grader there this year. “We feel like it is time to start discussing scenarios.”

The meeting is set for 7 p.m. Monday at district headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive.