Pinckney families, community members decry impact closure would have on disadvantaged students

photo by: Mike Yoder

Jen Unekis, center, addresses members of the Lawrence school board on Saturday, March 25, 2023, during a public hearing about the potential closure of Pinckney Elementary. From left are school board members Paula Vann, Erica Hill, Carole Cadue-Blackwood and Kay Emerson.

As Lawrence school board members prepare to consider closing Pinckney Elementary, parents and community members called on them to consider the impact on the school’s students, many of whom come from low-income households.

About 125 people attended the hearing on Saturday afternoon, and dozens rallied outside against closing the school ahead of the meeting. During the more-than-two-hour hearing, many commenters spoke about how the closure would affect children with limited or no transportation who currently walk to school and those who use the school’s food pantry, shower and laundry facilities. They urged the board to look beyond closing schools for budget savings.

Pinckney parent Serena Miller said she wanted the school board members to think of the students who weren’t in front of them that day.

“I hope the school board takes into consideration what this means for the students who don’t have a voice in this situation, but will be impacted the most,” Miller said.

photo by: Mike Yoder

Sherry Tamerius, far right, a retired Pinckney Elementary teacher and now a substitute at the school, reads the names of current students at the school while faculty and staff listen at left. District leaders heard public comment Saturday, March 25, 2023, as part of a public hearing for the potential closure of Pinckney Elementary.

Sherry Tamerius, a long-term substitute teacher at Pinckney, used most of her three-minute comment period to read the names of Pinckney students. She said, “Pinckney is more than numbers on a spreadsheet, it is about –,” after which she began reading the list of names. The time limit cut her off before she was finished, leaving off on the name “Oliver.” At the end of the meeting, another commenter, Topher Enneking, finished reading the list and said: “This school means something.”

Another woman started her comment by asking the Pinckney staff who were at the hearing to raise their hands if they knew her daughter, after which more than a dozen hands immediately were raised. The woman said that her daughter had trouble speaking and issues with anxiety, but that unlike when she was a child in the Kansas City school district, her daughter found support at the school instead of “falling through the cracks” in a larger school population. Among her family’s challenges, she said that for a period of six months they were homeless, and that she credited the school staff with getting them out of that situation.

“Without the support of this staff, we probably would have failed,” she said, adding that she had the option of returning to Kansas City, but decided to stay in Lawrence. “One of the main reasons why I chose to stay here was so my daughter wouldn’t fall through the cracks in the education system.”

Among the district’s 13 elementary schools, Pinckney has the second-highest percentage of students who receive free or reduced-priced lunch based on their family income — about 63%, behind New York Elementary with 64%. 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. As the Journal-World reported, some members of the district’s Equity Advisory Council have expressed serious concerns about both the closure of Pinckney and Broken Arrow, the other school the board is considering closing.

photo by: Mike Yoder

A supporter of Pinckney Elementary School addresses the Lawrence school board during a public hearing for the potential closure of Pinckney held Saturday, March 25, 2023, in the Pinckney school gymnasium.

photo by: Mike Yoder

People walk past a sign in the hallway at Pinckney Elementary School on Saturday, March 25, 2023, during a public hearing about the potential closure of the school.

Rebekah Gaston, a member of the EAC and the parent of a Pinckney student, noted both of those aspects of the school’s population. Gaston said the board needed to be “undoubtedly, absolutely” sure that closures would bring more benefits than costs to those students, and she didn’t think that was the case for Pinckney or for Broken Arrow.

“Just the trauma of uprooting, disrupting kids who come from backgrounds with a history of marginalization, it doesn’t make sense to me,” Gaston said.

Pinckney parent Lynnette Littlejohn said her family chose to live in the Pinkney neighborhood because they wanted to raise their children in a colorful and diverse neighborhood. Littlejohn was one of several speakers who asked for more transparency surrounding the district’s budget decisions, saying that if the district had done detailed planning that justified closing the school, it needed to provide that to the community.

“You do not have to vote yes on Monday night,” Littlejohn said. “You can respect this community and the people you are impacting and give this matter the detailed planning and transparency that it deserves.”

Both of the most recent school closures or repurposings in recent years were at schools in eastern Lawrence: Kennedy Elementary was closed and repurposed into an early childhood center last school year, and New York began a transition to a public Montessori school this school year. Aimee Poirier, a parent of former Pinckney students, expressed concern about that pattern, which would continue if Pinckney were closed.

“Please do not continue divesting in Lawrence’s most racially and economically diverse neighborhoods,” Poirier said.

At the beginning of the meeting, Superintendent Anthony Lewis spoke about the district’s budget challenges in the wake of declining enrollment in recent years. Lewis said budget reductions were needed to provide competitive teacher and staff pay and to increase the district’s dwindling reserve fund.

“You know that the district has been experiencing declining enrollment, and as a result a loss of funding,” Lewis said. “Five-year enrollment projections indicate continued decline, so the district cannot continue to operate as it has been.”

Lewis referenced an equity analysis that was completed on the closure of Pinckney by district administration, which he said considered the impact on students and who would be disadvantaged by the closure. He said when considering what Pinckney students’ new schools can provide them, the analysis determined that a closure was favorable.

The school closures were proposed as part of a budget reduction package meant to free up money for teacher and staff raises, address rising costs and allocate money for the district’s reserve fund. The board already approved reducing middle and high school staff by 50 teachers. The district estimates closing one elementary school would save $300,000 to $400,000 annually. A few commenters spoke about the small percentage of expenditures that those savings represented within the district’s multimillion-dollar budget, and questioned why closing schools was the solution.

Should the school board ultimately decide to close schools, those students would be redistributed to other elementary schools. The proposed boundary changes would divide Pinckney’s approximately 170 students between Deerfield and Hillcrest schools, with the vast majority, or about 73%, being transferred to Deerfield.

The Lawrence school board will consider the potential school closures and boundary shifts related to the closures at its meeting Monday, March 27. The board can choose to close one, both or none of the schools, and will vote on finalizing the boundaries at a subsequent meeting. The public can also provide comment on the closures as part of Monday’s meeting.

photo by: Mike Yoder

Parents, faculty and students sing a song outside Pinckney Elementary during a rally at the school on Saturday, March 25, 2023. The rally was held before a public hearing regarding the potential closure of Pinckney.

photo by: Mike Yoder

Jordan Dadds and her son Graham Dadds, a first-grader at Pinckney Elementary, join in applauding with other Pinckney supporters during a public hearing at the school Saturday, March 25, 2023.


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