District expects Kennedy Elementary School change to save more than $700K; parents raise concerns about moving students

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Kennedy Elementary School, 1605 Davis Road

Changing Lawrence’s Kennedy Elementary School into an early-childhood community center — resulting in students being moved to other schools — appears to be driven by one simple factor: money.

Lawrence Superintendent Anthony Lewis recently told the Kennedy staff and families during a meeting that the change would help the school district see more than $700,000 in savings. Those savings, he said, will help the district respond to a $1.2 million shortfall caused by recent enrollment declines.

But Kennedy parents and staff raised concerns about the change, such as Kennedy students now having to cross busy streets to get to their schools and the possibility that the big change will compounded stress as students are dealing with the pandemic’s disruption of their education.

They also wondered whether the district had considered placing the proposed early-childhood education center elsewhere, which would spare Kennedy students from moving and would also put the early-childhood center — a presumably communitywide need — in a more central location.

Concerns about timing also have arisen. Several parents at the meeting asked why Kennedy and why now.

Kelly Jones, a parent of two children at Kennedy (no relation to the Lawrence school board member with the same name), thinks she knows why the proposal has been made public just recently and why it’s expected to be considered for approval in the coming weeks.

Jones, whose family lives down the street from Kennedy, told the Journal-World that she thought the district was trying to ram through the proposal as quickly as possible before all the ramifications were considered.

“I think the timing is poor at best, and manipulative at worst,” Jones said. “I get the feeling Dr. Lewis thinks if he speaks fast enough and uses big enough words, we will get lost and not pay attention,” she added.

The decision is likely coming soon, as the district’s budget and program and boundary advisory committees have both approved the plan recently, and the Lawrence school board is expected to consider signing off on it during its April 12 meeting. But before then, the district plans to hold another public forum — this Wednesday — with the Kennedy community.

While Lewis repeatedly said he was aware that the change would cause “strong feelings” among those affected by it, he also said the district did not have many options.

He said that when the proposal was first presented to him as an option to address the shortfall, he wanted to spend a year to “plan and engage” on the topic and consider the proposal the following year. But the issue of a $1.2 million shortfall would still exist in the short term, he said.

“I was asked this one question, ‘Dr. Lewis, where would we get the money from?’ and I didn’t have an answer to that,” Lewis said. “We have to do it now,” he added.

Saving school funds

The district’s plan calls for Kennedy Elementary’s fewer than 200 students to begin attending one of the nearby schools — Cordley, New York and Prairie Park elementary schools — next fall, and the district to turn Kennedy into a community early-childhood education center.

As the Journal-World previously reported, steep declines in enrollment last fall, likely caused by the coronavirus pandemic, are expected to hurt the district’s state funding. The district said in November that it expected to see a shortfall of $1 million that would need to be addressed in the upcoming budget. Lewis said the shortfall was now expected to be $1.2 million and could be higher if enrollment did not return to pre-pandemic levels.

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Lawrence school district

Lawrence Superintendent Anthony Lewis shows a list of positions that would be eliminated, saving about $722,000, in a proposed plan to change Kennedy Elementary School into an early-childhood community center and moving the building’s current students to other elementary schools.

That led the district to the proposed change at Kennedy. Lewis said 11 administrative and staff positions would be eliminated at Kennedy through the proposal, which would save the district about $722,000. Lewis listed those positions as six teachers, a principal, an administrative assistant and a guidance counselor, plus some part-time positions, including a library media specialist, nursing staff and a learning coach, among others. He said the staff in those positions would be able to apply for other open positions in the district.

As the Journal-World previously reported, Prairie Park’s principal, Shannon Harrelson, is leaving at the end of the school year, and the district did not say at the time of her resignation that it planned to find a replacement immediately, which it normally does. That appears to leave the door open for Kennedy’s principal, Chalita Middleton, to move over to Prairie Park and for the district to use Kennedy in other ways.

Why Kennedy?

Several members of the Kennedy community said they supported the idea of an early-childhood education center, noting that it would greatly benefit young students. But they repeatedly asked whether the Kennedy building was the right location.

One parent at a recent meeting said he didn’t think families on the west side of town would want to drive all the way to Kennedy, which is at 1605 Davis Road, on the far east side of town. Jones echoed that sentiment and said the district likely had facilities in more centrally located areas. She also said the district might be better off placing the proposed services in several locations throughout town.

But Kennedy’s selection appears to be based on enrollment declines rather than on its location.

Lewis noted that Kennedy’s enrollment is low compared with its building size and it is expected to fall. The school has long had the lowest capacity use — routinely less than 50% of the building’s available space. As the Journal-World previously reported, the district’s enrollment advisers, RSP Associates, told the district they expected Kennedy’s enrollment to continue to drop in the next five years, down to just 167 students, with a capacity use as low as 41% during the 2023-24 school year.

Jones said she doubted RSP Associates’ report. She said her family specifically moved to the Kennedy area so that her children could be near the school. Under the proposal, she said her children are expected to move to Cordley in central Lawrence.

She also said she thought the housing around Prairie Park, about a mile south of Kennedy, was increasing, and that it would be only a matter of time until that school was full.

Lewis told the community that Prairie Park was currently using 65% of its building capacity, meaning the change would not affect capacity issues. However, that capacity is based on its enrollment during the pandemic, when Prairie Park saw a dip of 70 students, according to the district’s enrollment records.

If the district’s enrollment begins returning to a pre-pandemic level, the building’s capacity could be reached quickly. According to the RSP Associates report, Prairie Park’s building usage was expected to increase to 87% by 2023-24, and that’s before some of the Kennedy students were possibly moving there.

Additionally, with the proposed changes, Jones said families in the Kennedy area would be expected to get their kids to schools across major streets, including 23rd Street for Prairie Park and Massachusetts Street for Cordley. She said those students likely wouldn’t be able to walk to school anymore, and the district might need to provide transportation, which would be an added expense.

She also said there was an open question of whether the schools Kennedy students moved to would be considered Title I schools when they take on the Kennedy students. Currently, the district receives federal funding for Kennedy being a Title I school, which means it has a high number of students from low-income households.

Jones fears that shutting down Kennedy and moving the students could result in Lawrence losing a Title I school and the additional funding that helps those students.

But Lewis said during the meeting that New York Elementary was already a Title I school and would continue to be one. He also said Cordley and Prairie Park could both become Title I schools through the change.

He indicated that Kennedy, being a Title I school serving low-income households, would be a good location for an early-childhood center because it would be most beneficial to that community.

Future of facility

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Lawrence school district

A list of possible programs are seen here during a Lawrence school district meeting on a plan to turn Kennedy Elementary School into an early-childhood community center.

When the proposal was first announced in March, Lewis said it would allow the district to be able to expand early-childhood education services.

When speaking to the Kennedy community, Lewis said the district was currently discussing with community service organizations to expand early-childhood service in the building. He noted that the district currently has a partnership with Head Start, an outside organization providing early-childhood education services, and is looking to expand the program to allow an Early Head Start program, which focuses on children as young as 3.

Along with expansion of the early-childhood program, Lewis said the building could house dental and medical clinics and behavioral health and human services providers.

However, Jones said questions remained about how various organizations might be able to use the space and at what cost.

She cited, too, a sense of betrayal, noting that Kennedy was one of the schools that was remodeled as part of the 2013 bond issue. She said that Lawrence residents in the Kennedy area supported that bond, believing that their neighborhood school would be better for their children.

“I think the district really needs to answer to the fact that that was sold to voters as an improvement to grade schools,” Jones said. “Now they are either going to give that space away or rent it out to community entities.

“That just doesn’t feel right,” she continued. “That’s not at all why people voted for it.”

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