Lawrence school board approves plan to close Kennedy Elementary, use building for early-childhood education community center

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Kennedy Elementary School, 1605 Davis Road

Starting next fall, Lawrence’s Kennedy Elementary will no longer educate K-5 students after the school board approved a plan to close the school.

The Lawrence school district plans to turn the building into an early-childhood education community center, with outside organizations initially providing services. But to make the change possible, Kennedy Elementary’s 185 K-5 students will have to move to three nearby schools — Cordley, New York and Prairie Park — next school year.

The board voted 6-1 to approve the plan with board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood voting against it Monday night. Board President Kelly Jones said during the meeting she knows the plan causes “grief” among Kennedy families, but she felt the district would take measures to address their concerns.

“We are going to do our best to protect Kennedy families and to create a space that is amazing in terms of early-childhood education and the benefit to our community,” Jones said at the end of the meeting.

The driver of the plan is the district’s finances. The closure is expected to save the district about $722,000 through eliminating positions at Kennedy, which would help the district address $1.2 million shortfall caused by significant enrollment declines last fall. While the district expects to receive more COVID-19 relief funding from the federal government’s recent American Rescue Plan, district spokeswoman Julie Boyd told the Journal-World on Monday that the district has not yet received that funding and does not know enough about it to include it in the 2021-2022 school year budgeting process.

Along with the financial concerns, the district leaders said the plan also provided for the opportunity to expand early-childhood education services. Some local community leaders — including representatives from the Community Children’s Center and the Lawrence chamber of commerce — said during the meeting they supported the district’s plan because more avenues for early childhood services are a dire need in the community.

Before the board voted, one parent voiced concerns during public comment about students in the Kennedy area traveling to their new schools without the district providing travel. Currently, the district’s procedure is to not provide transportation services when a student lives within 2.5 miles of the school they attend.

Additionally, in a district survey about the topic, the highest rated concern was student travel. Under the plan, current Kennedy students will need to cross 23rd Street to travel to Prairie Park and need to cross Massachusetts Street to travel to Cordley.

Prior to the meeting, parents and staff have raised concerns about the change, including the timing of the decision, how it would affect students and whether Kennedy’s building was the correct location for a communitywide early-childhood center, among other issues.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis said the district is looking into before-school programming for the schools, which could help parents bring their children to school earlier in the morning before they go to work. He said the district also plans to have events, such as open house events and field trip tours, later this month and next month to help the students get used to their new school buildings.

Jones said the board also received many emails from the community asking for the district to keep the elementary school. Despite those concerns, the board ultimately decided the plan was appropriate. But they did not come to that conclusion easily.

Board member Shannon Kimball said she supported the plan, despite having “complicated” feelings about it. She said expanding early-childhood opportunities is a goal of the district, and the district is facing challenging financial issues with or without the plan.

“I see this as an opportunity for us to turn what would only be a negative into something that can, as well, be a positive,” Kimball said. “It is not very often that we have a proposal on the table where we are cutting the budget and at the same time making progress on goals.”

Meanwhile, Cadue-Blackwood said she was conflicted about the plan because of the student travel issue, and ultimately voted against it.

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