Lawrence school consolidation group breaks the ice at first meeting

Members of a volunteer group poised to reshape the future of elementary schools in the Lawrence school district shared vivid memories of their own elementary school careers during an organizational meeting Thursday night at district headquarters.

Among the disclosures during a trust-building introductory exercise for the Central and East Lawrence Elementary School Consolidation Working Group:

• Kissan Joseph, a parent from the Sunset Hill School community, recalled having grown tired of waiting in line to sign in with the principal on the first day of kindergarten — and walked home.

• Megan Richardson, a representative from the Woodlawn School community, admitted facing public exposure when in third grade her top — a dress she had worn as a 2-year-old — had ripped apart after she’d been slapped on the back by a classmate.

• And Chris Lempa? The at-large member from the New York School community disclosed how he’d chosen as a student to set fire to a milk carton, forcing evacuation of his elementary school in Chicago.

“Tell me more about that one,” boomed a voice from the audience, one belonging to school board member Mark Bradford — who happens to be chief of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical.

“I denied it then,” Lempa said, “and I still deny it.”

The exchanges highlighted the meeting Thursday night, as more than two dozen volunteers gathered to get an introduction to their appointed task: Meet during the coming months to identify and recommend ways to consolidate schools.

Specifically: Trim a list of six schools — their schools — to either three or four within three to five years.

“We’ve got some difficult decisions ahead of us,” Superintendent Rick Doll told the group. “We’ve got to start building some trust.”

Six schools — ones identified earlier this year by another volunteer task force, and then reaffirmed by the school board — will be studied by the group as candidates for consolidation: Hillcrest, Pinckney and Sunset Hill schools in central Lawrence, and Cordley, Kennedy and New York schools in eastern Lawrence.

Board members say there isn’t enough money available to keep all schools open and still finance services and programs necessary to provide students with the best possible education.

Now members of the working group will be asked to come up with a plan that the community can embrace.

“We’re advocates for the kids in these schools, not the facilities,” said Tim Laurent, appointed to the group as a representative from Kennedy, where he has a daughter entering fourth grade. “The building is secondary. The most important thing is making sure that these kids have the resources to be successful.”

The group plans to start its working meetings in August, likely twice a month through January. Former Lawrence City Manager Mike Wildgen will serve as chairman, handling administrative duties. Recommendations are due to the board in February.

The group’s recommendations are expected to become the foundation for formation of a proposed bond issue, one that would be designed to address physical needs in all district elementary schools. The bond issue also could include school expansions or even a new school or schools to make consolidation a reality.

Doll acknowledges that any bond issue would be “a tough sell,” but encouraged group members to embrace their new responsibilities and look forward to the coming months.

“It’s going to be fun,” he said.