Lawrence school district committee hears more school closure options for cost savings, including plans to close multiple buildings at once
photo by: Journal-World file photos
A Lawrence school district committee is exploring new options for closing elementary and middle schools to help the district address a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall, and it’s focusing on several buildings in the eastern and central parts of town — particularly Broken Arrow Elementary and Liberty Memorial Central Middle School.
The scenarios would involve more far-reaching actions than those that were previously discussed. Earlier discussions had focused on the closure of one school building, New York Elementary. Now, the school district’s boundary committee is discussing closing several school buildings at once.
It would also be a significant change in how the district views its elementary schools, partly doing away with the neighborhood-centric model and moving students in several eastern neighborhoods into one school.
The boundary committee heard four scenarios during a meeting on Wednesday. Each of the scenarios involves more than one school closure, and Broken Arrow and Liberty Memorial are included in almost all of them.
Zach Conrad, the district’s director for data, said the scenarios were based on several factors relating to the district’s enrollment projections and school building capacities. The district also looked at buildings that needed significant improvements, such as Broken Arrow.
“Our objective here is from the budget committee, who is wanting us to explore scenarios where there is significant budget savings,” Conrad said during the committee meeting.
In the first scenario, several schools would be closed and repurposed. Conrad said the district would close four elementary schools — Broken Arrow, New York, Pinckney and Woodlawn — and move all of those students to Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, which would then become a large, east-side elementary school.
Billy Mills Middle School would then expand into the neighboring Broken Arrow building, and it would absorb the middle school students who currently attend Liberty Memorial.
A second scenario calls for closing Broken Arrow and either Woodlawn or New York, and then moving the students from the closed elementary schools into the Liberty Memorial building. The middle school students now attending Liberty Memorial would then move to an expanded Billy Mills Middle School, just like in the first option. Conrad said this scenario ties the closing of Broken Arrow and Liberty Memorial together.
There are also two options that don’t involve Liberty Memorial, but that would close Broken Arrow and either Woodlawn or New York. In those scenarios, the students from the closed schools would move to other area elementary schools, possibly including schools in central and western parts of Lawrence.
Conrad also mentioned that the budget and program evaluation committee asked for a scenario that involved closing Hillcrest Elementary, but he has not finished working through what that would look like. He said that would “be a little more tricky,” because Hillcrest houses the districtwide English to Speakers of Other Languages program, or ESOL, and the district would have to come up with a new plan for the students in that program, such as creating cluster sites at other elementary schools or returning them to their “home” neighborhood schools.
What would happen to the buildings after closing has not yet been determined. Larry Englebrick, interim chief operations officer, told the committee that the district would look into options for use either by the district or an outside entity, but he did not provide any specific ideas.
“The one thing we would not want to do is have a building sitting empty,” Englebrick said. “Our interest would be to have the buildings used by the community in some way,” he added.
None of the scenarios included specific information on how much money the district would save by making the changes. District spokeswoman Julie Boyle said the financial aspects of each scenario would instead be reviewed by the budget and program evaluation committee.
Meanwhile, district finance director Kathy Johnson said Wednesday that the scenarios presented during the boundary committee meeting were not yet recommended proposals for the school board to consider. Instead, she said they were options for the committee to explore as possible solutions, and that the committee was trying to figure out what might happen if it were to recommend them.
“This is just discussion, just exploration of what those scenarios could look like or might look like,” Johnson said.
Additionally, any recommendation from the boundary committee or the budget and program evaluation committee would need to be given final approval by the school board, she said.
If the board chooses to consider a full closure of a school building — meaning the district would not have immediate plans for a building’s use after moving the students out — Johnson said the board would need to publish a proposal in February and host public hearings before making a final decision either in March or April.
The committee was discussing the possibility of school closures as part of the district’s work to find savings amid a $3.3 million shortfall that is expected in the next school year’s budget because of enrollment declines in recent years. Additionally, the school board recently discussed making up to $7 million in cuts to free up money to pay for other expenses, such as faculty and staff pay raises.
To help find ways to save money, the district’s budget and program evaluation committee is considering many options, including “closing an elementary school” and “closing a middle school.” The proposals also included reducing staff positions at several levels, such as eliminating middle school assistant principals, executive director positions in the district administration and some coaching and fine arts leadership positions, among several other options.
Meanwhile, the district’s administration has already begun exploring and discussing with school leaders the possibility of closing New York Elementary and turning it into a free, public Montessori school.
As the Journal-World previously reported, Superintendent Anthony Lewis said the district began exploring the possibility as a way to attract students to the district.
He also confirmed that the district shared information about the plan with New York Elementary’s staff and the school’s site council. But Lewis said no official decision or recommendation on the proposal has been made.
That proposal also comes just months after the district closed Kennedy Elementary School, another school that served eastern Lawrence students, to turn it into an early-childhood community education center. That move saved the district a little more than $700,000 in its budget, the district said at the time.
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