‘Frustrating’: Proposed Broken Arrow closure would be second for rural Lawrence students in 11 years

photo by: Mike Yoder

Broken Arrow Elementary, 2704 Louisiana St.

When Kellen Gaston’s oldest child was entering kindergarten a little more than 10 years ago, she was happy to send her to the rural elementary school just a little more than a mile north of their home.

Wakarusa Valley School — located at 1104 East 1000 Road, just southeast of Clinton Lake — served as a Lawrence elementary school for many rural students. But Gaston’s daughter, who is now in high school, did not attend the rural school. Instead, the school closed in the spring of 2011, after 50 years of service and just before Gaston’s child was to begin kindergarten.

Without the rural school, Gaston’s daughter was taken by bus miles away to Broken Arrow Elementary in the southwest part of Lawrence city limits. While Gaston said she and her family were upset about losing the rural school, they learned to love Broken Arrow; her twin boys currently attend the school.

A Wakarusa Valley student’s poster shows appreciation for efforts to save the school. The Lawrence school board voted to close the school southeast of Clinton Lake at the end of 2011 the school year.

However, history appears to be repeating itself for rural students, as Broken Arrow is now on the chopping block to possibly be closed a little more than 10 years after Wakarusa Valley.

Like the parents of students in eastern Lawrence, some parents of rural students feel the schools their children attend are always the ones up for closures, while western Lawrence remains untouched.

Gaston said the closures also seem to contradict the school district’s recent efforts to improve equity, since the closures focus on schools serving lower-income residents.

“The thought of trying to adapt and managing something (again) is frustrating,” Gaston said. “It is not making things equitable and equal for people at all,” she added.

Additionally, some feel their children are being pushed to a school located farther into town, and the changes may force them to consider moving to a different school district, such as Baldwin City.

Currently 73 students at Broken Arrow live outside of the Lawrence city limits, south of town in the rural parts of Douglas County, according to the school district. They make up roughly 28% of the school’s current enrollment.

But their school, along with several others in the eastern and central part of town, are at risk of closing as the district considers ways to save money as it faces at least a $3.3 million shortfall in its budget. Other schools that could be closed include Hillcrest, New York, Pinckney and Woodlawn elementary schools, and some scenarios include closing elementary schools and turning Liberty Memorial into a larger regional elementary school, as the Journal-World reported.

If Broken Arrow were to close, the students would likely be moved to Schwegler Elementary, which is at 2201 Ousdahl Road in the central part of town.

Kristy Wempe Bellinger, who attended Wakarusa Valley when she was a child, said she also thinks the district’s school closure discussions focus only on schools serving eastern Lawrence and rural areas. Currently, her family lives in the township of Clinton on the west side of Clinton Lake, and her 8-year-old daughter attends Broken Arrow, despite living several miles away.

When her daughter, who is in second grade, is bused to Broken Arrow, it can take up to an hour and a half. She now wonders if the commute could become even longer if she is moved to Schwegler or another school farther into town.

“That’s entirely too long for a child to be on the bus,” Wempe Bellinger said.

However, the district disputes whether the change to Schwegler would have much of an impact on the commute time for students in the rural areas.

District spokeswoman Julie Boyle said in an email to the Journal-World that the district took the rural students’ situations into consideration while building the school closure scenarios. She said that Schwegler is about 1.5 miles away from Broken Arrow and that the district reviewed the travel distance for the students and found most would not be traveling longer distances.

“Staff has mapped where each student lives and the distance from the different school buildings,” Boyle said. “For most of these students, the miles reflect nearly identical distances and an approximate additional two minutes of travel to Schwegler Elementary.”

Meanwhile, Gaston said she wondered whether another school closure meant that some rural families would look at other options, such as moving their kids to nearby districts that aren’t facing the same dilemma.

She said it’s not lost on her, and hopefully not the school district, that decisions like that could compound the district’s problems, as it would mean more students leaving the district amid budget shortfalls caused by declining enrollment.

“My worry is they are going to do all of this somewhat in vain because the enrollment is going to drop even more,” Gaston said.

So far, no school closure scenario has yet been recommended to the school board for consideration. The board would need to give final approval to any such scenario. However, decisions could be coming soon, as district finance director Kathy Johnson said the district would need to begin the process of closing a school in February.

But even that seems too quick to Gaston and Wempe Bellinger, who both said they thought the proposals came up with “no notice.” They also said that it seemed like whenever there was a budget issue, despite the district knowing it could be coming for years, the district’s only answer was to close schools.

“This is something they’ve known for a while, but they continue to spend money when they don’t have it,” Wempe Bellinger said of the school district. “Now their fix is to close schools, which is hurting the children. That should not be their mission.”

As the Journal-World previously reported, the district’s budget and program evaluation committee is considering many cost-saving options, including “closing an elementary school” and “closing a middle school.” The other 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.

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Kennedy Elementary School, 1605 Davis Road

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