With more than $16 million in bond issue funds invested in schools that may close, board members grapple with weight of upcoming decisions

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

New York Elementary School, 936 New York St., is pictured Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. The sign in front says "Est. 1869."

As the Lawrence school district tries to close an estimated budget gap of up to $7 million, the district might close schools that recently had at least $16.5 million worth of taxpayer-funded improvements.

Additionally, if those schools are closed, taxpayers are still going to be paying the debt on those millions of dollars of improvements for more than a decade, district spokeswoman Julie Boyle confirmed. The last payment date for the district’s 2013 bond issue — which spent more than $97 million on school building improvements and was approved by about three-quarters of the district’s voters — is Sept. 1, 2035.

For someone like Shannon Kimball, the only current school board member who was around for the passage of the 2013 bond issue, the topic of the amount of money invested in those school buildings during her tenure is something she said she’s thought about a lot.

“I will just say for me personally, (that) question weighs really heavily on my mind in these conversations and in these decisions we’re faced with making,” Kimball said. “When the state was really pulling back from its commitment to public schools, our community stepped up in pretty much the only area they could, which was to support us in at least making sure the facilities we were using for our kids were of a high quality, were excellent places for kids to learn, excellent places for our teachers to teach. That’s an area where our community gets to have choice and input, through being able to pass bond issues.”

The community has enthusiastically supported the past two bond issues, Kimball said, and the district tried to live up to its promises for how those funds would be spent. Even having to have the conversation about not using some of those buildings as attendance centers anymore “weighs really heavily on my heart,” she said.

Regardless, school closing talks are moving forward, with the district scheduled to discuss some options at the next regular school board meeting Feb. 14 and possibly hold a public hearing on the issue as early as March.

The most wide-reaching school closure scenario currently under consideration would shutter Broken Arrow, Woodlawn, New York and Pinckney elementary schools and consolidate those students at what is now Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. The combined amount spent on improving just those four elementary schools accounts for $16,516,112.60 — around 17% — of the 2013 bond issue’s total expenses. That cost jumps to $25,340,635.50, or 26% of the total cost, if you include Kennedy Elementary School, which was closed and turned into an early-childhood education community center last year.

The 2013 bond focused on modernizing six older schools in central and eastern Lawrence — Cordley, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill elementary schools. Of that group, more than half of the schools have either already been closed, in Kennedy Elementary’s case, or are currently on the table as an option for closure to help with the district’s budget deficit. Along with New York and Pinckney, Hillcrest Elementary School also has its own school closure scenario under consideration. The 2013 bond issue cost for improvements at Hillcrest was $7,954,884.74.

Although discussion about that handful of proposals involving closures has been on the table, school board member Kay Emerson noted that no one proposal has actually been solidified and sent to the board yet. Emerson — along with Kimball and their fellow board member Erica Hill, who also provided comment to the Journal-World — said the board hadn’t discussed any specifics for how closed school buildings might be used if the board were to adopt a scenario that would lead to school closings.

Emerson is a newer face on the board, having only been sworn in a month ago. She said that much like members of the public, she has also had questions of her own about what the district’s plan might be for using any buildings that ultimately cease operating as attendance centers.

“I know that we’re going to have a discussion (at the school board meeting) Feb. 14, but we haven’t had that opportunity to have a discussion as a group, which makes it a little bit more challenging because we each have our own thoughts,” Emerson said. “This is collective work, but at the end of the day the district is still in the process of figuring out what they want to do, or what they even want to present to us to decide on or think about.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be a future plan for any of those potentially vacated spaces, though. The district confirmed in December it was exploring the possibility of turning New York Elementary into a Montessori school. Boyle told the Journal-World earlier this week that idea is still on the table.

Historically, Boyle said, previous school consolidations have seen the district either use vacated buildings differently or sell them for community uses. Along with the former Kennedy Elementary, Wakarusa Valley Elementary School — which closed in 2011 — has since served as the headquarters for Lawrence Virtual School, and the district has leased space at that building to Greenbush, an education service center that has offices throughout the state. Boyle also said East Heights now houses the district’s Community Transition Program for young adults ages 18 to 21. The district also previously sold a shuttered school building; the former Riverside School, which closed in the early 2000s, was sold to a private company and converted into an office headquarters in 2005.

For now, though, the consensus among board members who spoke with the Journal-World was that there weren’t any concrete ideas to talk about on that front yet, but that the debt would still remain for the next decade. Until there are concrete ideas, the district is faced with a situation much like if one bought a house, took out a loan on the mortgage, and then never lived there again.

Kimball said she thinks there are potential uses for any buildings that ultimately become vacant, but the discussion hasn’t been concrete enough yet to say in particular what some of those ideas might be. It’s an element that will be part of her personal evaluation process, she said.

“I want to recognize and honor the investment our community made in the district to the greatest extent that I’m able to do so,” Kimball said. “… We have to continue to be, to the best of our ability, good stewards of the investments that our community has made in our district. I think that’s really important. It’s an important piece of the community’s trust that gets placed in the district when we ask them to support us in this way. You have to look at it carefully and thoughtfully and you have to have a good plan, so that’s what I will be looking for.”

In the meantime, Emerson said she’s sure some cost-saving scenarios will “fall off” and other new options will be brought to the table as the district continues processing its options, and that hopefully will allow for more examination of scenarios beyond just the ones that involve closing any schools. She said she’d also encourage members of the public to examine some of those other options themselves and provide some feedback about alternatives they’d be for, rather than focusing just on opposing any scenario involving a school closure.

Hill, for her part, told the Journal-World in an email statement that she, too, has given thought individually to the fact that bond dollars have been invested in school buildings. She said her primary focus is making budget decisions that allow for the best educational experience for students and an optimal work experience for educators and staff, and positioning the district for success now and in the future.

The Journal-World reached out to all seven school board members for comment, but Andrew Nussbaum, Kelly Jones, Carole Cadue-Blackwood and Paula Smith did not respond.


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