Some members of Lawrence school district’s equity council say proposed school closures would hurt disadvantaged students

photo by: Journal-World File

The district will close Pinckney Elementary, top, and Broken Arrow Elementary, bottom, next school year.

Some members of a council that considers equity issues for the Lawrence school district say the council as a whole was not asked for input on the district’s proposal to close Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementary schools, and that they have serious concerns about how closures would affect disadvantaged students.

Seven members of the Equity Advisory Council, whose 28 members include school board members, district staff, students, parents and community representatives, collectively sent the Journal-World a letter to the editor regarding their concerns, and the newspaper later interviewed several of them. The letter states in part that rather than following the district’s equity policy to eliminate inequitable practices, systems, and structures that advantage some students while disadvantaging others, the proposed school closures create more.

“[The] proposed cuts create inequitable structures by proposing certain children bear the brunt of changes rather than reducing administrative costs or finding other ways to share the sacrifice,” the letter states in part.

The members also expressed disappointment that district staff did not ask the EAC to review the budget proposal or provide a recommendation. District spokesperson Julie Boyle said the school board’s and the district’s commitment to equity is clear from the board’s equity policy, the strategic plan, and the ongoing equity work in the district’s schools, and that there were several ways EAC members were involved in the budget discussion process, including that seven EAC members were appointed to the 39-member Futures Planning Committee that provided a budget recommendation to the school board.

However, the EAC members who signed the letter, three of whom were on the Futures Planning Committee, said that process continuously overlooked equity.

Rebekah Gaston, one of the EAC members who expressed concerns, noted that the district didn’t specify which schools it was planning to recommend for closure until after the monthslong Futures Planning Committee process concluded. Gaston said the result of that was that specifics about the schools’ student populations, such as socioeconomic and racial demographics, could not be given due consideration.

“I feel like with equity, you really need to be looking at the students in the schools that are going to be closed, because you need to look at what are their needs to make sure you’re meeting those needs,” Gaston said. “Because equity is about seeing where people are and bringing them up to the level that they need to be at. And so if it’s just any elementary school that you’re closing, that’s a very different conversation.”

As the Journal-World has reported, an activity to analyze the equity impact of the budget reductions was the last action taken by the Futures Planning Committee in its final meeting. The proposal to close schools was analyzed in a general sense and completed by one small group of about five members, rather than the committee as a whole. The EAC members who spoke to the newspaper said that by not discussing specific schools, factors specific to certain school populations, such as the number of low-income students, the diversity of students, limited transportation options for some families, absenteeism rates, or the number of students on special education plans could not be given the attention and consideration they deserved.

John Rury, one of the EAC members who was on the Futures Planning Committee, said that in addition to not being about specific schools, the discussions about potential school closures at that committee level centered on the physical aspects of school buildings, such as the number and size of classrooms, rather than educational factors. Rury said he didn’t think there was adequate discussion of those factors or who was advantaged or disadvantaged by the proposal.

“That’s, I think, one of our fundamental concerns,” Rury said. “From the very beginning, the focus was on those sort of physical and condition sort of factors, rather than education factors.”

The EAC members said the specific demographics of the student population, the impact of the cuts on disadvantaged students and their academics are at the heart of equity discussions they thought should have occurred.

Both Broken Arrow and Pinckney are located in eastern Lawrence. Among the district’s 13 elementary schools, Pinckney has the second highest percentage of students, about 63% (behind New York with 64%), who receive free or reduced-priced lunch based on their family income. Pinckney is also more racially and ethnically diverse than the district’s elementary students as a whole, with about 45% of students being students of color, compared to 38% across all elementary schools.

Among the district’s 13 elementary schools, Broken Arrow has a slightly higher percentage of students, 46.5%, who receive free or reduced-priced lunch based on their family income, than the district’s elementary students as whole, which is about 43%. With 37.3% of its students being students of color, Broken Arrow students have roughly the same diversity as the district’s elementary students as whole; however, the school has the highest percentage of Native American students, at 4.1%.

EAC members Salaama Wadud and Doris Ricks both said one of the questions they had was why recent school closures and changes — Kennedy Elementary was repurposed into an early childhood center last school year and New York began a transition to a public Montessori school this school year — have only affected eastside schools. Ricks said that has raised questions in the community, and that personally she thought an effort should be made to better distribute cuts.

“It’s always typically the eastside schools that are being closed down, and so you have the community concerned about, well, why are you always choosing eastside schools to close versus westside schools?” Ricks said.

The members expressed concern that closing lower-income schools exacerbates transportation challenges for families who lack resources. EAC member Katie Prue said closures not only make walks to school longer for children whose families may have limited transportation options, but also put additional large arterial streets between students and their schools. The members noted there are already disparities in absenteeism rates among different student groups, and they expressed concern about absences increasing for some students if they are transferred to a school farther away from where they live and don’t live within a 2.5-mile radius for busing.

“These are families that lack the resources to transport kids, and it’s likely going to result in greater tardiness, greater absences, and these are the kids, on that side of town, who can least afford that from an academic standpoint,” Rury said.

The members also spoke about the disruption that school closures and the transition to a new school cause students, and ultimately, what it means for neighborhoods when a school closes. Gaston said it is a trauma the students have to deal with in addition to any added barriers the closures cause, and Rury added that taking a school away can impact home values and the interest people have in moving into a neighborhood.

The EAC members said they were disappointed they were not involved in substantive conversations about how the proposed closures of Broken Arrow and Pinckney would affect students. The members said that the only opportunity for the EAC as whole to provide feedback regarding equity was general input on the district’s equity analysis tool, which district administrators later used to analyze the specific closure proposals.

“We talked about the tool; we didn’t talk about any of the issues,” Prue said.

In response to some of the concerns, Boyle noted that the seven members of the EAC participated in the Futures Planning Committee and that the EAC’s input on the equity analysis tool was taken into account. She said all EAC members received an invitation to participate in the community survey and attend the public input sessions or complete the feedback form, and that an equity statement that the EAC asked be shared with the Boundary Advisory Committee, which recently completed its recommended boundary changes related to the proposed school closures, was shared with that committee. She said those considerations received discussion.

“The board’s charge to the BAC includes ensuring that equity is considered in boundary changes,” Boyle said via email. “During its meetings, BAC members considered the impact of proposed boundary changes on the racial/ethnic makeup of schools and discussed diversity and equity throughout the process of developing and finalizing their recommendation.”

Boyle added that when the Futures Planning Committee used the equity analysis rubric to analyze school closures in a general sense, the analysis was favorable to closures. She said that when district administration analyzed Broken Arrow and Pinckney specifically, the result was the same.

Boyle said that challenges related to the district’s budget and school closures have been an issue for decades, and that the district recognized there would be differences in opinion in how problems are addressed.

“The district expects and respects differences of opinion across the community about how to provide the best education for all children with the limited resources available,” she said.

Boyle also said the district appreciates the parents, staff, and community members who serve on board, district, and school advisory committees, including the EAC. She said the board and administration value their input and consider it in decision-making.

The EAC members emphasized that they were speaking out about their concerns in the spirit of improving the process. Rury said that included how the EAC functions and the role that it can play. Gaston said she would like the district and the EAC to partner with parents and community members, and not just have decisions made “top down.” Prue, Ricks and Wadud said it was about giving everyone a voice and a part in the process.

“I think we could get better results overall if people felt like they are actually building and helping to make their communities better and stronger,” Wadud said.


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