Some Lawrence school board members express interest in arts-based middle school, other ways to repurpose schools if buildings close

photo by: Lawrence Journal-World

Lawrence school district offices, pictured in April 2021.

Three Lawrence school board members expressed interest earlier this week in the possibility of the district providing new educational programs, such as an arts-based middle school, in the face of possible school closures. District administrators said such possibilities are being considered, but they are in the early stages of evaluating potential changes.

During the board commentary portion of the Lawrence school board’s meeting this week, board member Kelly Jones said the Futures Planning Committee and community members have suggested a lot of interesting ideas for new educational offerings as the district faces projected enrollment declines and potential school closures. Jones expressed interest in the district looking into the feasibility of an arts-based school as well as other educational programs as ways to repurpose school buildings amid potential consolidations.

“I’m sure there are other initiatives that have been discussed, but that’s an issue that’s come up since I’ve been in Lawrence,” Jones said. “Every couple of years it arises: Can Lawrence support a performing arts school? And I believe that we could support an arts-based education school, so I would like to see the district look at the feasibility of that, to begin to think through, is that really something that’s achievable, both legally and feasibly, and is there interest in the community?”

The district’s enrollment held steady from last school year to this school year; however, a consultant hired by the district recently projected that the district would lose about 300 students over the next five years. That prediction is based in part on the consultant’s analysis that most population growth related to the new Panasonic plant in nearby De Soto won’t occur for another six to 10 years.

Based on the consultant’s enrollment projections and other budget considerations, such as the desire to increase teacher and staff pay, the initial budget scenario proposed by district administration calls for up to $9 million in cuts, including the closures of two elementary schools and one middle school (specific schools have not been proposed). Using that scenario as a starting point, the Futures Planning Committee has been working to draft a budget recommendation that will be sent to the Lawrence school board in February. During a recent group activity designed to help the committee consider scenarios for its recommendation, one of the seven groups suggested turning Liberty Memorial Central Middle School into a performing arts school. The board will make the ultimate decisions regarding budget reductions and any school closures, including any repurposing of buildings.

Jones said that while the district will be facing tough discussions about closures, she wanted the district to also consider the good things that might come out of those decisions.

“I would like to hear more about it from district administrators, or similar ideas, so that we’re looking at how we can contribute positively to students’ experiences in our district, and also to the educators that provide their instruction,” Jones said.

In response to Jones’ suggestion, two other board members, Kay Emerson and Carole Cadue-Blackwood, said they were also interested in hearing about potential new educational options. Much like Jones, Emerson said that she was interested in learning more about the ideas for new education models that the district is looking into, and that she’d like district administrators to share those options with the board. Cadue-Blackwood said in talking to teachers and community members, she’d heard some good solutions and opportunities proposed.

“It’s a big reach, but with this crisis it does bring opportunities, so we can think differently and think big,” Cadue-Blackwood said.

Closing a school and repurposing the building is not a new concept for the district. The district began phasing out the traditional elementary school at New York School, 936 New York St., this school year, and will replace one grade level annually with a public Montessori program that is open to students in the New York boundary area as well as all students in Douglas County. The district also closed Kennedy Elementary school, 1605 Davis Road, last school year in order to convert that building into an early childhood center.

In response to questions from the Journal-World, Chief Academic Officer Patrick Kelly said via email on Thursday that district and building administration appreciated the feedback from the board on the repurposing of middle schools. Kelly said while no decision has been made regarding a fine arts focus or any new direction for the middle schools, the district continues to evaluate options.

“Our administrative team is always evaluating the learning outcomes and delivery models of our middle schools in an effort to make adjustments that increase student engagement, academic performance, and preparation for high school and beyond,” Kelly said.

The Journal-World asked whether district administrators saw an arts-based middle school as a feasible possibility, and whether there were other ideas the district was looking into that it could share at this point. Kelly said district staff was in the early stages of developing operational plans around many of the ideas shared by the Futures Planning Committee and the board. He said that those plans would not be fully developed until direction was provided by the board and feedback was gathered from those impacted by any decisions.

The next meeting of the Futures Planning Committee will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2 at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive. The committee’s final meeting will be Feb. 15, and the board will review the committee’s recommendation at a special meeting on Feb. 21 before ultimately providing direction to the district at its meeting on Feb. 27.


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