Lawrence school board votes to consider closing Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementaries, rules out Woodlawn for next year
photo by: USD 497
Story updated at 1:52 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28:
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, members of the Lawrence school board took a step that will allow them to consider closing two elementary schools ahead of next school year.
As part of its meeting Monday evening, which did not conclude until about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, the board voted to hold public hearings on potential closures at Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementaries, a necessary step should the board ultimately decide to close either of those schools.
Board President Shannon Kimball, who pushed for considering an additional closure recommended by district administration, said to improve pay for district teachers and staff, it would take closing schools and cutting staff, and that cutting in just one area, such as administration, would not meet the financial need.
“I’m feeling pretty frustrated right now, because I feel like our administration has done exactly what we asked administration to do,” Kimball said. “And we are again at a decision point where the board has to decide what kind of district we’re going to be for the next decade, and for various reasons we’re taking things off the table.”
The board voted against a recommendation from district administration to also consider closing Woodlawn Elementary School in North Lawrence and approved an amended timeline for a recommendation to repurpose Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. The board’s vote was mixed on both the Woodlawn and LMCMS issues, with board members who voted against the district’s recommendation expressing concerns about transportation issues for Woodlawn students and a rushed timeline for repurposing of LMCMS into a school with an as-yet-undetermined curricular focus.
About 150 people attended the meeting and the board heard approximately two hours of public comment ahead of the votes. Several parents expressed concern about Woodlawn students having to cross the Kansas River bridge, which has open railings and includes access points down to the river and nearby railroad tracks. Kimball said she also had concerns about students from Woodlawn walking to their new school, but she wanted to give district administrators a chance to address the transportation concerns before ruling out a closure for next year.
Some students in North Lawrence would not be covered by state-funded busing, which only buses students 2.5 miles or more away from their school. Ron May, director of human resources and safety, told the board if the district were to pay to bus additional students, it would cost about $50,000 per route annually. Board member Kelly Jones asked about how many additional routes it might take to cover all the approximately 200 Woodlawn students, and May said that since each route can serve about 50 to 60 students he would estimate it would take three or four routes.
“So it’s significantly more than $50,000,” Jones said. “To move students over a river, it’s going to cost quite a bit of money.”
The district estimates closing one elementary school would save the district between $300,000 to $400,000, but that does not account for any additional busing costs the board might approve beyond the routes covered by the state.
Jones also proposed the motion to delay the district’s plans to repurpose LMCMS for a year. She expressed concern about the district losing some of the recent gains it has made with those students and rushing the plan unnecessarily when particulars about the focus of the school, new boundaries, staffing and other elements still need to be worked out.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me to build it while you’re moving the parts,” Jones said. “When we’ve done that in the past, it hasn’t been as successful as I feel like it could have been.”
The board also approved a recommendation to cut 50 teachers from the middle and high school levels and increase class sizes. Past President Erica Hill was the sole vote against that plan. Hill, noting the district’s goals to improve achievement for all student groups, expressed concerns about how larger classes would affect students, and asked what assurances the district could provide to ensure students got needed support.
“I’m asking this question because we talked about, at the board table, moving students from level 1 to 2 on the assessments,” Hill said. “So I’m looking at student academic performance and opportunities to learn.”
A breakdown of the votes is as follows:
Broken Arrow: The board voted 6-1, with board member Kay Emerson opposed, to hold a public hearing on closing Broken Arrow. Emerson said she was unclear on what the plan was for the school building and wanted clarity. One of the reasons the district cited for recommending the building’s closure was that it required $8.3 million in renovations to improve instructional environment (including construction of walls), but it also stated the school could potentially be used to expand space for adjacent Billy Mills Middle School or to support other innovations.
Pinckney: The board voted 6-1, with Carole Cadue-Blackwood opposed, to hold a public hearing on closing Pinckney. Before the votes about the school closures, Cadue-Blackwood asked that the board consider its own role in the balanced development and growth of the city and the impact of closing schools.
Woodlawn: A motion to hold a public hearing on closing Woodlawn failed 4-3, with Kimball, Hill and Board Vice President Paula Vann voting in favor of holding a public hearing. The four board members who voted against the motion all cited transportation concerns, including the physical barrier that the Kansas River bridge presented for students and the potential for additional costs to bus students.
Liberty Memorial Central Middle School: The board voted 4-3, with Kimball, Vann and Hill opposed, to repurpose LMCMS beginning in the 2024-2025 school year. The motion, which was made by Jones, aligned with the district recommendation to repurpose the school with a new curricular focus (such as arts-based or dual-language), but pushed the timeline out a year. Jones’ motion called for the redesign committee to consider the new focus, boundary shifts aiming for more equitable distribution of socioeconomic status, and contingencies for the possible elimination of a middle school planning period. The repurposed school would be open to students throughout Lawrence and beyond (including current LMCMS students), and the motion directed the committee to return to the board with a recommendation for the special curricular focus by December 2023. Jones and others who voted in favor of the longer timeline agreed the district and students would benefit from more time to plan and implement the changes. The board members who voted against the motion indicated they were in favor of the district’s plan of transitioning the school beginning next school year.
Middle and high school staffing cuts: The board voted 6-1, with Hill opposed, to cut as many as 50 teachers across the middle and high schools levels at the district’s brick and mortar schools and the Lawrence Virtual School. A previous version of the recommendation called for increasing average class size to 28 at the middle school level and 30 at the high school level, but a specific number was not indicated in the most recent version of the recommendation. While Kristen Ryan, executive director of human resources for Lawrence Public Schools, said the district would aim for those class averages to be lower than previously laid out, Hill expressed concerns about how larger classes would affect students and wanted a firmer commitment to consider a lower level of teacher cuts and class sizes.
School boundaries will have to be redrawn with any closures, and a draft school closure timeline calls for Boundary Advisory Committee meetings to take place during the first few weeks in March, followed by an update to the board on “transition progress” on March 27. The committee will meet from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at the district’s Facilities & Operations Campus, 711 E. 23rd St., Building A.
Superintendent Anthony Lewis told the board that the public hearing notice for closing schools must specify what school would be closed and what school those students would attend after the closure. A date for the public hearings for each school closure and a final vote from the school board are not yet determined. Public hearings will only be held for the elementary schools, as LMCMS would be repurposed.
Correction: This article has been corrected to indicate that teacher cuts at the middle and high school level will also affect the Lawrence Virtual School and to include that the most recent version of the recommendation did not specify a classroom size.