Board votes 4-3 to close Broken Arrow and Pinckney schools
photo by: Rochelle Valverde
After hearing an hour and half of public comment, Lawrence school board leaders have voted to close Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementaries.
As part of its meeting Monday, the school board voted 4-3, with Carole Cadue-Blackwood, Kay Emerson and Past President Erica Hill opposed, to approve a resolution to close Broken Arrow and Pinckney at the end of this school year.
As parents and community members still in the board’s meeting room reacted, some with tears, School Board President Shannon Kimball apologized for the hurt that the decision caused.
“This is the most difficult decision I’ve ever made as a board member,” Kimball said. “And I am sorry for the hurt that I know that you are feeling.”
Board member Kelly Jones also said she wanted to acknowledge that the decision would have consequences.
“I want to just acknowledge that that vote will have serious consequences for teachers and students, and I apologize for that component of it,” Jones said. “It was certainly one of the harder votes I’ve made. It’s hard sitting up here when two things are true at the same time.”
Cadue-Blackwood, noting that her family moved to Lawrence in 1978 and that she attended Lawrence schools since kindergarten, said she understands the boundaries and socioeconomics of the city, and that factored into her decision.
“I understand the invisible boundaries that are in this town, that have plagued this town for generations,” Cadue-Blackwood said.
Cadue-Blackwood also said she took under consideration the location of public housing development and other subsidized housing, as well as the Douglas County Health Equity Report, which among its many data points indicates there is a difference in life expectancy of about 10 years between different areas of the county.
“This makes it very real,” she said. “These are not just numbers, these are people. This is where I grew up.”
Kay Emerson said the she did not want to be part of decisions to close schools.
“I know we can do better, and I implore us to do better,” Emerson said.
Hill said the district had amazing teachers and educators, and that she wanted to make clear her “no” vote was not because she did not support them. GR Gordon-Ross and Vice President Paula Vann did not make additional commentary after the vote.
Parents, students and teachers continued to press the Lawrence school board not to close Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementary schools, calling on the district’s elected leaders to think of the district’s at-risk students.
The board’s meeting began at 6 p.m. on Monday and public comment did not begin until about 9 p.m., following the conclusion of district presentations and initial questions from the board. The board was set to vote on whether to close Broken Arrow and Pinckney elementaries, but the vote had not occurred by the Journal-World’s print deadline.
Tabitha Pestock, a first grade teacher at Pinckney, gave multiple examples of the extra support the school is able to provide its students, about 63% of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch based on their family income. Pestock said that included using the school’s laundry and shower facilities to let kids who come to school dirty wash their faces and change into clean clothes, sending food and supplies home with students from the school’s pantry, as well as the additional classroom supports that are available through extra federal title funds the school receives because of its student population.
“This has everything to do with the support and safety nets Pinckney has spent years putting into place so our marginalized students and their families will not be forgotten and fall through the cracks,” Pestock said. “All of this will be ripped away from them, all of the supports that they rely on, and there are no plans that we can see that replace these.”
Brandi Green, a parent involvement facilitator at Pinckney, said her job is only available at title schools, and that Pinckney students who are transferred to schools that don’t receive extra title funds will lose those supports (district administration has said other types of supports are still provided). Green said that her position includes providing mental health support and any other action to support kids and their families, and have included attending housing hearings in support of a single mom about to lose her housing, reaching out to community partners, and even sending baby formula and toilet paper home with students.
“That means it’s my job to help our families get what they need for their kids to be successful in school,” Green said.
Ida Heckman, a sixth grader at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School who attended Pinckney for two years, said that the smaller classes at the school were easier for her and she thought were in the best interest for those students.
“When I first went to Pinckney I immediately felt that the teachers cared about how I was doing, not just my grades,” she said.
photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World
A parent of a former Kennedy Elementary student — which the district closed last school year — said that she felt there has been broken promises of support for her daughter in her transition to her new school. The mother said her daughter now has a 30-mintue walk to school, is in a larger class, and she has been absent more due to inclement weather, 11 times so far this school year. She said both her daughter’s test scores and quality of life have suffered, and she was worried about the children and families in the community if the board closes additional schools.
“Voting yes to this plan tells me nothing was learned from the previous mistakes that caused hardships to our families,” the mother said. “Please do not continue to put the burden of balancing the budget on our most at-risk students without a real plan.”
Anne Costello, a member of the Futures Planning Committee that provided a budget recommendation to the board, said that she voted in favor of closing schools as part of that process, but has since changed her mind. Costello said that at that time specific schools were not mentioned and limited information was provided. She noted the socioeconomic status and demographics of the two schools, including that Broken Arrow has the highest percentage population of Native American students among the district’s elementary schools. She said knowing what she knows now, she’d change her vote.
“It has been said that people are more important than buildings; I agree,” Costello said. “But when centering other people, closing these schools is not an equitable choice. They aren’t just buildings being closed, but some of our more vulnerable communities are being broken apart.”
The board previously heard about 4.5 hours of public comment on Saturday as part of closure hearings for the two schools. Speaking to those comments, Superintendent Anthony Lewis said Broken Arrow and Pinckney are good schools that have been making great strides, and that he thought that was echoed in the comments from parents, community members and staff, and how highly they spoke of the teachers and other staff who work in those buildings. He said that wouldn’t go away with the closures.
“It’s the adults that make those schools great, not the actual building itself,” Lewis said.
photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World
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, which is expected to save the district $3.25 million annually. The district estimates closing one elementary school would save $300,000 to $400,000 annually.
If the closures are approved, the Broken Arrow and Pinckney students would be distributed to other elementary schools in the district via school boundary changes, and students from three other schools will be redistributed to new schools to make room for the incoming students.
The proposed boundary changes would divide Broken Arrow’s approximately 220 students among five schools: Cordley, Langston Hughes, Prairie Park, Schwegler and Sunflower. Pinckney’s approximately 170 students would be divided between Deerfield and Hillcrest schools, with the vast majority, or about 73%, being transferred to Deerfield. Approximately 90 students total from Cordley, Deerfield and Hillcrest will be distributed to other schools to make room for the incoming Broken Arrow and Pinckney students. The board received the recommended boundary changes as part of Monday’s meeting, but will not vote on them until its meeting on April 10.
photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World